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Fort Bragg Soldiers Tackle Expert Infantry Badge

A soldier from the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, wears the Expert Infantry Badge after completing all the EIB assessment requirements at Arta, Djibouti, April 24, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathan Maysonet)
A soldier from the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, wears the Expert Infantry Badge after completing all the EIB assessment requirements at Arta, Djibouti, April 24, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathan Maysonet)

Eight hundred and eighty-eight paratroopers began Monday morning, seeking to earn one of the most coveted and most challenging badges in the U.S. Army.

By Wednesday morning, only 262 of the soldiers remained in the running for the Expert Infantryman Badge.

By Friday, when officials expect to pin the badges on paratroopers, there will likely be fewer than 100 soldiers remaining.

The grueling, week-long gauntlet includes a physical fitness test, land navigation courses and a series of weapons, medical and patrol tasks leading up to the final challenge -- a 12-mile ruck march that ends with paratroopers tackling Objective Bull, a final test of skill that requires them to treat a casualty and carry them to safety.

But while the test mirrors training soldiers learn as early as basic training, those who have earned the badge or are trying to earn it caution that it's no easy task.

Historically, the test has a success rate of just about 10 percent, officials said.

"It's a pretty stressful week," said 1st Lt. Stephen Zachensky, one of the remaining soldiers as of Wednesday morning.

Zachensky was between medical tasks on his first attempt to earn the badge.

A member of A Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the lieutenant said the EIB was significant for the infantry, especially leader, who can earn respect and credibility by proving they are proficient in the basic skills the badge tests.

Pfc. Hudson Melvin, a soldier with C Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Infantry Regiment, said earning the badge was a matter of pride.

"It distinguishes you from all your peers," he said. "It's in the name. You're an expert."

Like Zachensky and Melvin, most of the soldiers participating in the testing were from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.

The brigade was hosting the test at various locations around Fort Bragg this week, but the planning began months ago, when the unit was still serving in Iraq.

Sgt. Maj. Walt Embich, the brigade operations sergeant major, said the brigade's experiences in Iraq, helping to train Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIL, had a clear connection to the test.

For the first time, the brigade included the AK-47, weapon of choice for fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a series of required weapons skills soldiers must complete.

Soldiers had two minutes to clear and disassemble the weapon and another two minutes to reassemble it and then perform function checks to ensure it will work properly.

First Sgt. Bradley Shaw, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the weapons tasks, said soldiers had two weeks to prepare for the tests and could have as much practice time as they need.

The selection of the AK-47 was a natural choice, he said, because of its ubiquitousness overseas.

"They are probably going to see the AK-47 if they go anywhere in the world," Shaw said.

As soldiers completed their skills tests on Wednesday, brigade leaders and noncommissioned officers conducting the tests walked around proudly displaying their own blue EIBs.

Col. Curtis Buzzard, the brigade commander, earned his badge 23 years ago.

He said the badge, which originated on Fort Bragg in 1944, was designed to improve espirit de corps for the infantry.

"These guys are living in that legacy," Buzzard said.

Command Sgt. Maj. Wayne Lawrence, the senior enlisted soldier for 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, said that an EIB sets soldiers apart in a day.

"When we're all in uniform, everyone looks the same," Lawrence said, noting how common airborne wings and air assault badges are on Fort Bragg. "But this is a matter of pride. It shows you wanted to be an expert."

Embich, the operations sergeant major, said soldiers from across the 82nd Airborne Division, as well as the 3rd Special Forces Group and Special Warfare Center and School participated in the testing.

The soldiers covered ranks from private to sergeant first class and 2nd lieutenant to captain, he said.

For those soldiers in 3rd Brigade, Embich said the testing would be valuable training, whether or not they ultimately earn the badge.

As the unit starts to train back up after a down period following last year's deployment, the EIB focuses on the same individual skills the brigade wants paratroopers to hone before shifting focus to small unit training in the coming weeks.

"If they can master their individual skills, it will all come together," Embich said.

The testing left little room for mistakes.

Soldiers are required to pass some tasks outright to earn the badge. Others can be reattempted, but no soldier can make more than three new attempts across all skills tests.

Melvin, the young soldier making his first attempt on the badge, had only one "no-go" by Wednesday morning.

He said the key was not getting caught up in how many chances you had left.

"It is tough. You have to pay very close attention to the task your on," Melvin said. "You can't think about anything else."

Lawrence said that attitude would serve soldiers well.

When he sought out the badge in 1993, he was able to calm down after quickly earning two "no-goes" on the first day of testing.

"It was only nerve wracking for the remainder of the day," Lawrence said. "I came back out the next day and it wasn't so bad. The worst thing that would happen is I could go home."

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