An Army medic peered from behind a wall as smoke wafted between his position and a nearby two-story building where three soldiers moaned in pain.
“I’m coming to you,” the medic shouted above the din of simulated machine gun fire and faux artillery blasts.
Sprinting to their aid, he quickly triaged the three soldiers, identifying and treating the most seriously wounded first and then making his way to the least injured. As he worked, the medic talked his way through his care, explaining each step.
As he spoke, another soldier sat nearby and carefully watched, his eyes occasionally glancing down at a clipboard.
This, according to Fort Bragg officials, is what right looks like.
The demonstration was part of the preparation for Expert Field Medical Badge testing next week, in which more than 300 soldiers and one sailor will push themselves mentally and physically for one of the Army’s most coveted — and most difficult to earn — skills badges.
Of the more than 300 candidates, spanning 12 military installations and the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, only about 55 or so are expected to earn the badge by the end of next week, said Maj. Brian Coaker, one of the event coordinators.
The 18th Airborne Corps is hosting the Expert Field Medical Badge testing at Fort Bragg’s Medical Simulation Training Center. The event is one of two tests for the badge offered at Fort Bragg each year and one of only 10 such tests offered across the Army.
Coaker, deputy surgeon for the 82nd Airborne Division, said the week ahead of the testing — known as Standardization Week — was important to ensure that candidates are positioned for success in the grueling training that lies ahead.
“They’re getting a chance to see everything,” Coaker said. “We’re going to take them through the lanes. They will get hands-on time to learn and refine.”
Last year, only 18 percent of soldiers who tested for the Expert Field Medical Badge earned it. And many who do earn it do so only after multiple attempts.
Sgt. Gerald Esposito earned his badge after three attempts and now serves as one of the more than 200 soldiers from across Fort Bragg who are supporting the training in various roles.
Esposito said earning the badge was far from easy. The coveted badge earns a soldier “instant credibility,” he said, and with good reason.
“It’s all about effort,” he said. “You’ve got to want this badge.”
Esposito and Sgt. Aiden Donaghue, both assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, said the test is marked by long days, stress and limited sleep.
“I didn’t stop studying until midnight,” said Donaghue, who earned his Expert Field Medical Badge on his first attempt in 2016.
Officials said they expect 15 to 20 percent of all candidates to fail out of the testing each day. That can be a surreal experience for those who remain, Donaghue said.
He began the testing in a platoon of 90 soldiers, he said. And by the time the testing was finished, only seven had successfully completed it.
“I didn’t expect to be there,” Donaghue said. “It was very rewarding.”
The badge brings with it an added confidence, not only in yourself but from other soldiers, the two paratroopers said. It also helps with future promotions and provides credit toward some medical certifications.
But most importantly, Donaghue said, the grueling test prepares soldiers for real-life scenarios.
Donaghue said he learned how to treat injuries from chemical attacks while testing for the Expert Field Medical Badge. And last year, while deployed with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in Iraq, he put those skills to the test when treating victims of a mustard gas attack.
Coaker said every soldier who tries out for the badge should be able to take something away from the testing, even if they don’t earn the badge.
“It builds readiness,” he said. “They’re going to come out better.”
That’s at least what Pfc. Timothy Tharp hopes.
Tharp is a combat medic with the 91st Military Police Battalion at Fort Drum, which is part of the 16th Military Police Brigade. He said he didn’t want to take part in the testing at first but decided the experience could help him in his career.
“If nothing else, it would be a good learning experience,” he said.
The first-time candidate said he plans on taking the testing “one day at a time” and focusing on the finer details, while trying to avoid getting lost in the larger effort.
“It’s step by step,” Tharp said.
The Expert Field Medical Badge was created in 1965 to recognize exceptional competence and outstanding performance by medical personnel.
Coaker said the requirements for the badge have evolved over the years.
In 2000, when Coaker earned the Expert Field Medical Badge as a young sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division, he said the testing of each skill was done individually. Now, all skills tests are integrated into scenarios that replicate the stress of the battlefield.
“It’s much more difficult now,” he said. “It’s physically taxing and takes a lot of attention to detail.”
Capt. James Uregen of the 44th Medical Brigade’s 240th Forward Surgical Team is overseeing the medical skills lane.
He said it’s historically the toughest event of the test, with candidates required to follow a scenario designed to provide the sounds, sights and smells of combat.
“We make it realistic,” Uregen said.
Expert Field Medical Badge testing officially begins on Sunday, Coaker said, launching a five-and-a-half-day effort that will include a written test, day and night land navigation, three combat skills lanes and a 12-mile ruck march.
The three skills lanes will each focus on numerous areas of evaluation, including moving under fire, responding to a chemical attack, providing medical care in several scenarios, evacuating wounded troops and communications.
During the testing, candidates live in four large tents set up on the Medical Simulation Training Center grounds. They will work from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day.
Of the 302 candidates, the majority are from Fort Bragg. And 229 of them come from 18th Airborne Corps units, including those from Fort Bragg; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Drum, New York; and Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Other candidates came from U.S. Army Special Operations Command, officials said. Their ranks range from private to major and they include 19 medical specialties, including medics, laboratory technicians, medical evacuation pilots and physician assistants, among others.
The badge means the same thing for all of them.
“When you see it, you recognize it,” Coaker said. “It’s a symbol of excellence.”
Sgt. Jeffrey Burke agreed.
A medic from the 3rd Infantry Division Artillery at Fort Stewart making his first attempt at the Expert Field Medical Badge, Burke said he knows it will be a challenging test.
By the end of next week, he said he expects to be dog-tired and covered in dirt. But if he earns the badge, he said it will help him inspire his junior soldiers.
Heading into the testing, Burke said others advised him to focus on Standardization Week and to forget about his earlier training.
Coaker said that was good advice.
The Expert Field Medical Badge is graded based on a specific way of doing things, which is why soldiers are given so much training in the week ahead of the test.
Because of that, Coaker said, more experienced soldiers often have a more difficult time.
“They have the way that they’re used to doing things,” he said. “But privates don’t know any better.”
Instead, any advantage more experienced soldiers receive comes from their maturity.
Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Waln, of the 82nd Airborne Division Surgeon Cell, said he failed to earn the badge on his first attempt in 2006, but can only blame himself.
“I didn’t really take it seriously,” he said.
He’s trying again as a senior noncommissioned officer, even though he knows more experienced soldiers have a more difficult time.
“It’s about setting an example,” Waln said. “It’s being professional. It’s putting forth the effort and dedication.”
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at [email protected] or 486-3567.
© 2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
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