FORT BARFOOT, Va. –
What 121 Soldiers started, just 14 completed. After five days of testing - plus days, weeks and even years of preparation - 14 Soldiers, including four from the Virginia National Guard, earned their Expert Infantryman Badges June 15, 2023. During a ceremony held on the same Fort Barfoot field where their testing began, the U.S. Army’s newest EIB-holders were pinned with the infantry blue rectangular badge bearing a 1795 Springfield Arsenal Musket signifying that they had successfully completed a quest conquered by only around 15% of those who attempt it.
“It’s a lot of pressure and it’s a lot of pain,” said 1st Sgt. Justin Walkup, who served as the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the event, which was planned and executed by EIB-holders within the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, dubbed the “Normandy Brigade.” Part of what makes earning an EIB so difficult, Walkup explained, is the knowledge that your time as an EIB candidate can swiftly come to end. “There are essentially seven different events that you have to survive, and at any given point, you’re done. Right down to the last minute, right to the very end, you could be cut.”
First approved in 1943, the EIB serves to “recognize infantryman who have demonstrated a mastery of critical tasks,” which “build on the foundation of individual proficiency, allowing them to locate, close with and destroy the enemy,” according to the U.S. Army Infantry School, or USAIS. Testing is condensed into four phases and occurs over five days, with a multi-day train-up period preceding testing to allow EIB candidates the opportunity to gain familiarity with the tasks in the testing environment.
In addition to EIB testing, the Normandy Brigade also provided Soldiers a chance to earn the Expert Soldier Badge. The ESB was first awarded in 2019, and 2023 marked the first time ESB testing was offered by the Virginia National Guard. Testing for the ESB is like that of the EIB, with slight deviations in standards for some events. Of the 121 candidates, 15 were vying for their ESB.
Before testing or the train-up period could begin, the first step was external validation by a representative from the USAIS at Fort Moore, Georgia, for the EIB, as well as a representative from Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to validate events for the ESB.
“Roughly 40 cadre members came out early to set up the lanes over the course of just two days,” said Walkup. Once set-up was complete, Walkup said their validation took two days, and included validation of all 30 task lanes, 121 candidate packets, the 12-mile road march course, the land navigation course, and the site for the Expert Physical Fitness Assessment.
“100% this has been one of the better ran events that I’ve been a part of,” said Col. Eddie Simpson, a Kentucky National Guardsman who served as the president of the EIB/ESB board. “The validators said this was one of the best National Guard-ran events that they had ever seen.”
Once validated, 121 candidates converged on the site. In addition to Virginia National Guard Soldiers from the Normandy Brigade, candidates included Kentucky National Guard Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry Regiment; Soldiers assigned to the Fort Meyer-based 3rd Infantry Regiment, known as the Old Guard, and the Fort Liberty, North Carolina-based 112th Signal Battalion; as well as two Soldiers from Finland. EIB-holders from Kentucky and the Old Guard helped round out the cadre and, over the course of several days, walked candidates through each of the 30 testing lanes covering weapons, medical and patrol tasks, and gave them a chance to brush up on their land navigation skills.
For many of the candidates, this year’s opportunity to earn their badge was not their first attempt at doing so and the train-up period was just the final study session on a preparation phase that began long before they ever arrived at Fort Barfoot.
“This is actually my third time,” said Staff Sgt. Gregory Thiemann, assigned to the Kentucky National Guard. In 2014, Thiemann had an expert marksmanship qualification and met the physical fitness requirements to try for his EIB. As a junior Soldier, fresh out of his initial training, he didn’t make it far into the testing process, but came back again in 2017, where he missed getting his EIB by mere minutes after failing to meet the road march standard. For his third attempt, he relied on team work. “EIB is a team effort up until the point of execution. It’s a team event all the way up until you go into the lane to test.”
For most of the Soldiers testing, the weapons, medical and patrol tasks were familiar, but for Sgt. Niko Keinanen, from the Finnish Defense Forces’ Jäger Brigade, all of it was new, with the train-up period being his first opportunity to get hands on the weapons and equipment he’d soon be tested on.
“I had to learn all the weapons, I had to learn all new tactics,” Keinanen said. “We do the same things, but a little bit differently, so I had to learn it all again. It’s like being a private again learning things all over.”
Finally, before dawn on June 11, 2023, testing officially commenced. First, Soldiers tacked the Expert Physical Fitness Assessment, the first phase of EIB and ESB testing. To proceed as candidates, Soldiers had to consecutively run one-mile, complete 30 dead-stop push-ups, a 100-meter sprint, lift 16 sandbags onto a 65-inch platform, complete a 50-meter farmer’s carry with five-gallon water cans weighing approximately 40 pounds each, complete a 50-meter movement drill and then run another mile. The EFPA must be completed while wearing the army combat uniform, to include boots, along with a helmet and body armor with ballistic plates, all within a time of 27.5 minutes for EIB candidates, or 30 minutes for ESB candidates. All but five Soldiers successfully completed the EFPA standards.
After a brief rest, the candidates traveled to Fort Barfoot’s EIB land navigation site, nestled along the southern edge of post. One hundred sixteen Soldiers set out on the day portion of the land navigation assessment. To meet the standard, they were required to find three of four points, all spaced 800-1,000 meters apart, within a three-hour time limit. Ninety-five Soldiers remained to test their land navigation skills under the cover of darkness. At night, they again had to find three of their four points, spaced 600-800 meters apart, again within three hours.
The next morning, 66 candidates began testing their proficiency on weapons. Over the course of 10 lanes, they encountered weapons including the M4 carbine, the M249 light machine gun, the Mark 19 40mm grenade launcher, the M2 machine gun, the Javelin shoulder-fired anti-tank missile and the M18 Claymore mine. Required actions varied by lane and weapon system, but at each station, candidates were required to complete the task in a strict sequence and often under a tight time limit. During task testing, Soldiers were allowed one no-go per day, but had to successfully retest on their failed event within one hour in order to proceed. For more than 40 candidates, the weapons lanes proved an unbeatable challenge. Just 25 candidates remained by day’s end.
“My biggest advice to Soldiers is, don’t be afraid of failure,” said Capt. Daniel Fida, assigned to the Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th IBCT. This year marked his second attempt at earning his EIB. “A lot of people don’t want to try because they don’t want to fail. You learn more from failure sometimes than you do from success. I failed the first time and came into it more prepared and worked my tail off, and here I am.”
Next, the 25 remaining Soldiers faced testing on medical tasks, including control bleeding, provide care under fire, request a medical evacuation and restore breathing. Six were cut. On the final day of task testing, 19 Soldiers tackled patrol tasks, including move under direct fire, transmit a spot report, adjust indirect fire and visual signaling techniques. An additional four were cut, leaving 15 candidates to face the final day of testing and the final challenge, a 12-mile road march with 35 dry pounds in their rucksack, to be completed within a strict three-hour time limit.
At the end of the three-hour time limit, 14 Soldiers earned their EIB. Of those, four were assigned to the Virginia National Guard - two each from the Normandy Brigade’s 1st and 3rd Battalions - seven were Mountain Warriors from the Kentucky National Guard, two were from the Old Guard and one was from Finland.
“The Expert Infantryman Badge is such a historic thing, and it’s so difficult to achieve,” Fida said just after completing the road march and officially earning his EIB. “It takes a lot of grit and mental focus and it’s not something you can show up and pass. You really have to try and give it everything. It was a phenomenal experience and I feel pretty good right now.”
Thiemann, whose efforts proved successful after his third attempt at his EIB, called the experience “surreal,” while Keinanen, the Finnish Soldier, who was first to complete the ruck march described the experience as, “really tough, but lots of fun.”
An hour later, Soldiers, leaders and cadre gathered to recognize the men who had earned the right to call themselves expert infantrymen.
“The EIB speaks its own language, everyone knows what it means,” said Maj. Gen. John M. Rhodes, the Commanding General of the Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division, who was on hand to congratulate the Soldiers on their achievement. “Congratulations to you all. You practiced, you rehearsed, you trained, and that shows your professionalism and dedication.”
For many of the Soldiers, earning their EIB wasn’t something they accomplished alone. Those who were successful this year and those who have held the badge for years, all seemed to agree that success was achieved through teamwork.
“Soldiers pair up or get in teams and they get themselves and each other through the event. Most everyone who wears the badge can name the Soldier they went through testing with,” Walkup said. “It is an individual event, but you get each other through it.”