Soldiers earn coveted badge after week-long test at Fort Bragg
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: October 31, 2017
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — A little more than two hours and 15 minutes into a 12-mile foot march, Maj. Jeannie Huh came streaming across the finish line – the first of nearly 100 soldiers who were still in the running to earn the coveted Expert Field Medical Badge as of Wednesday morning.
Huh, an orthopedic surgeon at Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, Georgia, was the first to finish a grueling, 10-day test at Fort Bragg that began with more than 300 soldiers.
By day’s end, fewer than one-fourth of the soldiers initially in the running for the Expert Field Medical Badge would be left standing.
Huh, finally able to rest, instead turned and began jogging back up the length of the route that she just ran.
After about a mile, Huh stopped and joined a crowd of more than 100 supporters, including soldiers from Fort Bragg and several other installations. She watched as some soldiers eked out the last of their strength, crossing the finish line on wobbly legs.
Some collapsed just after finishing the course. Others fell, unable to finish, feet from the end.
“It’s very heartbreaking,” Huh said of watching some of her fellow soldiers fall short. “It’s disappointing, but no one can say they didn’t give it their all.”
The foot march was a make-or-break event. If a soldier couldn’t cross the finish line within three hours, he or she would not earn the badge. It came on the last day of a rigorous test that sought to challenge soldiers mentally and physically.
Huh said she turned back up the course to cheer on her fellow soldiers.
“These are my teammates,” she said. “They helped me get through this and I wanted to help them… I’m a physician, but first and foremost I’m a medic.”
The Expert Field Medical Badge testing, hosted by the 44th Medical Brigade, began with an unprecedented 325 candidates, according to Col. Paula Lodi, the brigade commander.
At Pike Field on Wednesday, she helped congratulate the 78 soldiers who earned the badge, which is arguably the toughest badge in the Army to earn. The 24 percent success rate, she said, is higher than the Army average last year, when 18 percent of soldiers who competed for the Expert Field Medical Badge earned it.
Brig. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, commanding general of Regional Health Command – Atlantic, praised the awardees.
“Many are called, few are chosen yet even fewer have the intestinal fortitude and courage to compete for the Expert Field Medical Badge,” he said. “And even less, only a small distinguished group, actually earn the coveted badge.”
Dingle said the badge would now set the soldiers apart from their peers. It shows they were held to a high standard of excellence and possess a determination and intelligence unique among Army medics.
“You were familiarized, tested, challenged, pushed, stretched, questioned, marched, screened, evaluated, stressed and even sometimes yelled at,” he said. “Wear the badge with pride and perform your duties with excellence.”
For some, the Expert Field Medical Badge was the culmination of years of effort.
One soldier earned the badge on his sixth attempt, officials said.
Another, Maj. Erica Chabalko, earned the badge and, in doing so, finished something she first began a decade ago.
Chabalko, the executive officer for Fort Bragg’s 261st Multifunctional Medical Battalion, said she failed to earn the badge on her first attempt those many years ago.
Since then, she deployed and gave birth to two daughters, but always wanted to return and finish what she started.
“It’s amazing,” Chabalko said Wednesday, when she was among the early finishers of the 12-mile foot march. “I’ve been on both sides of this. It was really awesome to finish on such a good note.”
“I’m grateful for this opportunity,” she added. “You’ve just got to believe that you can do it.”
Chabalko’s finish helps cap off a successful month. In early October, she was part of the Fort Bragg Women’s team that competed during the Army Ten-Miler in Washington. That team took first place in their division.
Shortly after her latest accomplishment, Chabalko said she would cherish the badge, not only for what it represents but for all that it took her to earn it, too.
“It’s so much more meaningful that I had to fight to get to this place,” she said. “It’s a great honor.”
Maj. Kenneth Reed, executive officer of Fort Bragg’s 28th Combat Support Hospital, earned the badge on his first attempt, but said he was never alone during the arduous test.
“Everybody struggles and we all lean on each other to make it happen,” he said. “Everybody feeds off each other.”
Reed said the Expert Field Medical Badge was difficult to earn, but well worth it.
“This badge certifies you’re an expert,” he said. “It shows you’re willing to go the extra mile.”
Huh, who returned from a deployment in Southwest Asia earlier this year, said it was also her first time competing for the badge.
“It’s the toughest in the Army to get,” she said. “I’m really proud and I’m just thankful for all the support I received.”
Huh said she would return to work at a clinic on Fort Gordon on Thursday.
The original 325 soldiers came from units based in a dozen states, officials said. More than 200 hailed from Fort Bragg, with most coming from the 44th Medical Brigade, another large group from the 82nd Airborne Division and others belonging to the 18th Airborne Corps, Womack Army Medical Center and special operations units.
More than 350 soldiers from the 44th Medical Brigade were needed to support the testing. The event doubled as field training for those soldiers, who supported the badge candidates as they slept, ate and lived in the field for more than a week.
Lodi said she was proud of everyone who competed.
“This is our badge of excellence,” she said. “It’s a real test of where you are as an Army medic.”
Lodi said the soldiers were incredibly motivated, and even those who failed to earn the badge could return to their units having received great training that will prepare them for future mission and, hopefully, the eventual successful completion of the badge requirements.
“It’s not uncommon (to need several attempts,)” Lodi said. “Now, they know what they can expect next time.”
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org