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BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Not snow, not sleet, not even a nearby lightning strike deterred four U.S. troops from finishing the 18-mile trek for their German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge, one of the few foreign decorations awarded to American servicemembers.

More important than the badge, the soldiers said, was the respect of the German officer who tossed on a pack and hiked with them.

"He told us that when his cadets perform the road march, they are completely spent by the end," Capt. Timothy Skinner said. "They come dragging in."

It helped that national pride was on the line.

Though the four U.S. servicemembers from the Baumholder Health Clinic spend more time ministering to patients than soldiering in the field, they did not disappoint. First Lt. Sebastian Lobner, of the German army, pinned each one with a gold badge and congratulated him on the accomplishment.

U.S. servicemembers who earned the badge were Sgt. Dennis Ladrillono, Spc. Nicholas Mercadante, Capt. Matt Ewens and Skinner.

To earn the badge, soldiers had to complete running, swimming, shot-put and long-jump events. They also had to display marksmanship skills, shooting several German-made weapons, including a machine gun, rifle, and 9 mm pistol. Ladrillono and Skinner said the shooting was one of the competition’s highlights.

"Not a lot of people get a chance to fire these weapons." Ladrillono said. "The machine gun has more of a kick and it fires fast."

Of the 19 men and women who started the competition, only about half a dozen qualified for the 18-mile ruck march. During the march, Skinner compared notes with the German officer on army life, rank structure and deployments to Afghanistan. The Germans are deployed for only two months, Skinner said, a far cry from the typical 15-month U.S. tour.

"It was a pretty tough thing to get done," Skinner said of the march. "And it does mean a lot."

Lt. Col. Dino Murphy, who earned the badge when he was at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said many who competed had never been with a field unit.

"I wanted them to remember that they are soldiers," said Murphy, explaining why he organized the competition. It also fosters camaraderie between the two armies, he said.

"We go to war together," he said. "It gives them confidence on the battlefield that we’re all professionals. They learn that we may have different lives, but we struggle with the same issues."

The medals awarded might be a little extravagant by some standards — each is the size of a police badge with a large gold eagle etched into its center.

"If you’re going to get a badge," Murphy said, "you might as well get the gaudiest one. It looks nice when they wear their blues."


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