With soldiers focused on combat award, Army is moving to boost the EIB
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — When 117 soldiers with the 170th Brigade Combat Team earned the Expert Infantryman Badge earlier this month, they joined an elite Army group that has seen its numbers dwindle in recent years.
Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the once- highly coveted badge has been overshadowed by its more glamorous battlefield counterpart, the Combat Infantry Badge.
Leaders at the Army’s infantry school in Fort Benning, Ga., hope that by revamping the test for the EIB, they can return some luster to the award.
A story in the January issue of the Army’s NCO Journal reminds soldiers “though mostly unseen during recent years of constant deployment, the simple blue rectangle and musket of the Expert Infantryman Badge has not gone away.”
It remains “the ultimate mark of an infantryman,” the article reads.
In five of the last eight years, the average number of EIBs awarded annually has dropped from pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels, according to Army estimates. Between 1999 and 2001, approximately 6,500 soldiers earned the EIB per year, a number the Army hasn’t seen since.
Army officials blame the downturn on the demands of multiple deployments and less time for training. Units struggled to incorporate a test that took as long as a month to complete and included tasks that weren’t always relevant to upcoming downrange missions.
Some units haven’t offered the EIB test in more than eight years, said Master Sgt. Octavis Smiley, the Army’s EIB manager.
The recent EIB test at Baumholder was the first in five years.
“We had less than 50 EIBs in the brigade because it’s been so long,” said Sgt. Maj. Tony E. Tuck, the 170th Brigade Combat Team’s future operations sergeant major.
With fewer EIB holders in the Army, some younger soldiers admit knowing little about the badge, even though it’s been around since the early 1940s when then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall introduced it as a means to build esprit de corps within the infantry branch.
“I never really thought about it,” said Spc. Jordan Court, 22, of Baumholder’s 170th BCT, while testing for the badge at Baumholder. Three years into an Army career that’s included a 15-month deployment to Iraq, Court holds the Combat Infantry Badge in higher esteem.
“It’s definitely one that you want,” he said of the decoration awarded to infantry and Special Forces soldiers involved in ground combat. “It’s a little more recognized, a little more prestigious” than the EIB, he said.
Tuck wasn’t surprised to hear that.
“They don’t know the meaning of the EIB,” he said of younger soldiers. “During times of war, the CIB is more important to soldiers. It tells everyone else you’re doing your job in combat.”
But for soldiers who haven’t been in combat, the EIB shows “you’re an expert in your chosen profession,” said Master Sgt. Crosby Rice, the Maneuver Center of Excellence command sergeant major at Fort Benning, Ga.
The EIB also is tied to promotion up the ranks — or at least it used to be.
“In the old days, you couldn’t make E-7 without an EIB,” Tuck said. “Now, because of the war, some are making E-7 without it.”
The Army is trying to boost EIB numbers with new standards that Army leaders say better assess combat infantry skills — and make the test even harder — while requiring a unit to devote less resources and time to the testing process.
The 170th BCT put its infantry soldiers through the new drill during five days of testing that culminated in a pre-dawn, 12-mile road march with a 35-pound pack. Soldiers had three hours to complete the task.
The new test incorporates three “lanes,” requiring soldiers to show mastery in urban operations, patrolling and managing a tactical control point. A soldier has 20 minutes to complete 10 tasks in each lane while a grader follows along. The tasks may include throwing an inert grenade with pinpoint accuracy, disassembling and loading an M249 light machine gun, applying a tourniquet, low crawling or identifying terrain features on a map.
If a soldier makes more than two mistakes per lane or takes too long to finish, they’re out of the hunt. Under the old format, soldiers were graded at 30 fixed stations, with the opportunity to retry a missed task.
Soldiers also have to score 75 percent on each part of their Army Physical Fitness Test and complete a day- and night-navigation course to get the EIB.
The 117 soldiers who earned the badge at Baumholder were whittled from an initial group of 336 — a success rate of more than 30 percent. Six infantry soldiers earned “true blue” distinction with a perfect score.
Approximately four battalions and one brigade in the Army have conducted the new EIB test, Tuck said, with about 5 percent to 10 percent of soldiers so far earning the badge.
“In the old EIB, the average was 20 to 25 percent across the Army,” he said.
The goal, Tuck said, is for Army units to conduct EIB training once a year.
“It’s not a must, but it’s highly encouraged,” Rice said. “Our dwell times (when a unit is home between deployments) are increasing bit by bit.”