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Paratroopers face physical, skill tests in quest for Army's expert badges at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson

Paratroopers with 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, finish the four-mile run during the physical-fitness-assessment test portion of expert infantryman's badge at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, April 27, 2021. More than 500 paratroopers are attempting to earn their expert infantry and soldier badge.

ALEX SKRIPNICHUK/U.S. ARMY

By MARC LESTER | The Anchorage Daily News | Published: May 4, 2021

ANCHORAGE (Tribune News Service) — His voice boomed, but 1st Sgt. Robert Points urged the soldiers in formation on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to move slowly and carefully. "Don't get nervous," he yelled Tuesday morning before they dispersed.

Points said he hoped he'd see all of them again at the conclusion of a rigorous week. More likely, though, fewer than a third of them would make it to the award ceremony for two of the Army's expert badges, he said.

"I would love to see every single one of these guys here," Points said. "Unfortunately, that's not going to happen."

More than 600 paratroopers from the Army's 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, put themselves to the test this week. Dozens of tests, actually. Most were infantry personnel seeking the Expert Infantry Badge. About 100 gunned for the Expert Soldier Badge, an honor for non-infantry soldiers with nearly identical requirements.

Both badges reflect a mastery of combat skills the Army deems critical. Candidates spent weeks training and studying for tasks ranging from emergency medical treatment, to patrol communications, to weapons operation, to movements in the field while under fire. Many stations have a multitude of sub-tasks, each of which must be performed under the watchful eye of a pass-or-fail grader.

Candidates can't afford many mistakes. Each paratrooper is allowed just one testing failure, which they call "no-gos," per day before their week comes to a disappointing conclusion. Never are they allowed to fail the same task twice. A soldier can have no more than three no-gos all week. Some tasks, like physical fitness and land navigation, allow no do-overs.

That's why Points cautioned against "rushing to failure" during testing, held typically every one or two years. He spoke from experience. It took him three tries to earn his own Expert Infantry Badge, he said.

"They get up there and they get flustered. They don't have a process," he said. "A lot of this stuff is sequence-based. So like CPR, if you sweep and you don't check, you're going to get a no-go."

During land navigation testing Monday, soldiers used only maps and the military grid system to find markers in the trees. But first, each soldier was patted down for electronic devices to prevent cheating. Their phones were sealed in evidence bags.

Lt. John Mason walked up a dusty road as he and hundreds more soldiers began to fan out into the woods in waves. He said his strategy was not to get overwhelmed by the week's expectations.

"Worry about the one thing you're going to do right now," he said.

Spc. Ernesto Nevarez, who helped administer the "land nav" test, recalled how nervous he was when he went through EIB testing in 2019, and how proud he was when it was pinned to his uniform.

"It felt really, really special," Nevarez said. "It felt like a sign (that) I'm an expert at my job."

All infantry soldiers are expected to participate in testing until an Expert Infantry Badge is earned. Though it counts for few points toward a soldier's promotion, it's an important benchmark for leadership positions. Nearly all first sergeants have an EIB, Points said. The Army first created the badge during World War II.

Some non-infantry soldiers are self-motivated to earn the Expert Soldier Badge, a recognition that was first introduced in 2019. On Tuesday, Staff Sgt. Eduardo Colon-Torres, whose day job in human resources keeps him at a desk, said he wanted to demonstrate a mastery of the foundational tasks of being a soldier.

On Tuesday, he tried to shake off frustration after a "no-go" result at the .50-caliber machine gun testing station, which includes a rapid sequence of checking and loading before the weapon is fired.

"I just didn't seat the rounds correctly. When I pulled back the charge handle, I didn't pull it back all the way," he said.

After Monday's fitness and land navigation testing, candidates had three days to pass 30 medical, patrol and weapons testing stations that surrounded Attu Hall. Soldiers tossed training grenades on the south side while others retrieved dummies and dressed mock-traumatic injuries in fields to the west. To the north, others assembled tactical radios, called for support, applied camouflage face paint and responded to hand signals.

At no point during the week can paratroopers coast toward the finish line. The final day of testing began at 5 a.m. Friday, when the remaining soldiers started a grueling road march. Each wore a full combat uniform and hefted an M4 carbine weapon, water and a rucksack, gear that totals about 70 pounds. They had three hours to march 12 miles.

Lt. Tillesia Powell took congratulatory fist bumps with numb hands when it was all over. They went cold as she performed her final task, the disassembly and reassembly of her M4. Powell began the week feeling like she had something to prove by earning her Expert Soldier Badge, she said. She was one of two women who did.

"It's me and another female here, and we kind of crushed it," Powell said, referring to 1st Lt. Joely Manning. "So I'm proud of myself and proud of her."

"We're surrounded by males here. We're in an infantry battalion. We're kind of looked at like we're not as good as them, but we came out here and proved that we are," she said.

Nearby, 1st Lt. Steven Callas regrouped from the road march as the crowd dissolved and preparations for the award ceremony began. Hours later, he was one of 57 soldiers who were recognized for not receiving any no-gos all week.

"I'm hurting more than I would like to, but I finished it. That's all that matters," Callas said. "I can now call myself an expert infantryman."

At the ceremony, 148 paratroopers pinned an expert badge to their uniforms — about 23% of the soldiers who tested this year.

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