US soldiers in Italy vie for coveted expert badges
Stars and Stripes November 10, 2022
VICENZA, Italy — Staff Sgt. Ariana Perez counted three reasons why, after two crushing failures, she’d made a third attempt at earning the Army’s Expert Infantryman Badge.
"My soldiers," she said. "My career," she continued. "And my ego."
Perez got her badge Wednesday after mastering the 4-mile run in under 32 minutes that had tripped her up both times before.
Spc. James Bethea also pinned on a new badge, the Expert Soldier Badge, but on his first try and for a simpler reason.
"I was volun-told," Bethea said. " But I decided I'd put in 100% effort."
And Pfc. Emily Compliment earned her Expert Field Medical Badge, considered by many to be the most difficult of the three tests, on her first try on the first anniversary of graduating from advanced individual training.
She treated pretend amputations, broken limbs, eye lacerations and more as hawk-eyed graders watched. Her one flaw: "I had the wrong knot on an (evacuation)."
The three were among more than 1,300 soldiers who trained and practiced for two weeks at Del Din before taking the five-day tests designed to recognize troops for mastering various soldier skills and demonstrating fitness, as graded by expert troops who previously passed.
Most were with the 173rd Infantry Brigade, which hosted the event, along with some Southern European Task Force, Africa troops, Germany-based units and some foreign NATO allies.
The soldiers undergo days of testing on weapons, navigation, medical treatment and evacuations, patrol and physical training. The three tests vary, but the troops all must complete a 12-mile ruck march in three hours or less.
"If a candidate performs a task out of sequence or fails to meet the time standard on any portion of a task, the candidate will be stopped immediately and informed why the candidate is a NO-GO," according to the Expert Soldier Badge manual. The soldier gets one more chance before being disqualified.
Just 42% of the 494 U.S. infantry-branch soldiers aiming to get their Expert Infantryman Badges did so. Of 53 foreign NATO troops, 36 earned badges.
Thirty-one percent of the 218 medical branch troops who sought the Expert Field Medical Badge succeeded, which is a relatively high showing. Capt. Rob Haake, a 173rd Brigade spokesman, said passing percentages on all three tests had been trending higher in recent years.
The 619 soldiers going for the Expert Soldier Badge, available to assorted troops since 2019, had the lowest pass rate at 29%.
Two years ago, Capt. Connor Houston, aiming for his Expert Infantryman Badge, was almost done when he failed to properly secure a mock casualty to a spine board twice. "My brain was mush," he said.
The next year he tried again. "Everything was great and then I got COVID," he said.
But this time, going for his Expert Soldier Badge since he’d switched from infantry to finance, everything came together. He literally talked himself through it. “I like to tell a story,” he said. “ ‘Hey, buddy, are you alive?’ Oh my God, my friend’s dead,’ “ Houston said during the medical portion of his testing.
Houston said he was ready for a nap following a ceremony Wednesday.
Perez was winding down with bites of rotisserie chicken still in its bag and reveling in beating the test.
"No one can ever take this away from me," she said, "and I don't ever have to do it again."