Army leaders want more soldiers to train for badges – proof of combat skill – and hope to radically increase the opportunities for troops to test their abilities.
Strict rules for badge testing make the process incredibly time-consuming for units, and some on the active side are lucky enough to perform one test per year. In the Reserve and National Guard, testing is virtually non-existent due to logistical hurdles.
For troops, infantry, soldier, and medic badges are prestigious and can give them a leg up on others competing for promotions.
Leaders stressed that more opportunities to earn a badge would mean more training for soldiers in the essentials: radio communications, land navigation, treatment of combat injuries and weapons proficiency.
The military is consolidating all testing into a single event while keeping the three unique badges intact, allowing units to share resources and opening up opportunities for recipients of different badges to score the test, alleviating a huge logistical burden for units.
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“It’s happening; my goal is to complete this by 2023,” Army Sergeant Major Michael Grinston said Wednesday at the Association of the American Army’s annual conference. “giving [soldiers] more chance of earning the badge…this will be the army standard in the future.
The Expert Infantry Badge, or EIB, is awarded to infantrymen who complete a grueling multi-day gauntlet testing their skills in basic combat tasks, such as land navigation and weapons proficiency. The Expert Soldier Badge, or ESB, was introduced in 2019 and is effectively earned in the same way as the BEI, but is awarded for non-infantry jobs. The Expert Field Medical Badge, or EFMB, is essentially the same as the other two badges, but adds specific combat trauma treatment duties for medics.
The 10th Mountain Division conducted a trial to consolidate the three test events into one and thus saw a huge increase in the number of badge recipients.
“We ran this three times in a division during an exercise; 30 years in the military and I’ve never seen this,” 10th Mountain Command Sergeant Major Mario Terenas told Military.com in an interview. “We got 500 badges, that’s huge. I would love a study on the numbers, but I guarantee you no division has ever reached 500.”
He added that over the past year, due to its ability to conduct more tests, the 10th Mountain has awarded approximately 150 ESBs, of which only 600 have been awarded to the entire army so far. here.
Several factors have suppressed the number of BSEs awarded in the force: the badge was formalized less than a year before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is primarily intended for non-combat arms units that might not having all the resources or expertise to perform the tests, which primarily assess combat skills.
But a major factor is unit culture, where leaders can struggle to motivate non-combat troops to spend a lot of time training for combat tasks.
“The biggest challenge is motivating non-infantry people to try and get their ESBs. It’s new and not entrenched in the non-infantry culture the way EIB is part of infantry culture,” a senior army officer told Military.com on condition of anonymity to speak freely on the subject. “It took a lot of education, motivation and change management to get this off the ground – we’re not where we need to be yet.”
Some non-combat unit leaders also might not be comfortable with the skills being tested for badges and don’t want to risk missing out on the event in front of their soldiers.
“They see it as an unnecessary reputational risk,” the senior official added. “It’s safer not to test. What resonates is telling people that being one of the first to earn it will set them apart in future promotion boards.”
But Terenas stressed to Military.com that testing more is not “a badge issue.” Instead, it’s “sets and repeats” for skills that all soldiers should have. However, he said the number of badges awarded is one of the easiest ways to see how ready a unit is to fight.
The tests themselves overlap a lot, which should have made it easier to group them together. But small differences in each of the tests required detailed adjustment. Medics will perform most duties with other soldiers, but will split off to perform their specific job tests for the EFMB.
“We had this legacy system that was too time consuming. We had badges that had the same tasks, but they all had different standards,” Terenas explained.
The current training and testing process for a badge takes around 45 days, which can be a difficult task for units. Terenas’ trial schedule shortens the entire event to less than two weeks – seven days for training and five days for testing.
At first, there was a pushback because the changes could have meant more soldiers failing the tests.
“I think, ‘Holy cow, this is going to be a disaster,'” Terenas said.
But pass rates have actually increased: the idea is that if there are more tests, soldiers will practice steadily during their downtime, knowing that an opportunity to earn a badge is always close at hand. Terenas said the success rate is now 23%, down from 18%.
Still, there were issues with the medical badge on the first try. The badge exam includes a written test that covers a lot of basic medical knowledge, but it also includes advanced questions that can be overwhelming for a junior soldier. Soldiers get two attempts to pass it, and it was a prerequisite for the practical exam.
In one test, in Fort Polk, Louisiana, only one out of 65 doctors passed the written test. That person didn’t end up earning the badge.
But in an adjustment at a later trial, soldiers who failed the written test were allowed to go through the practical part. They got their second attempt at the written test towards the end of the process, before the 12-mile walk. With the new rules in place for a group of 120 soldiers, about 80 passed the written test.
The key to getting more doctors through the written exam was setting aside more time in the required study rooms. Terenas said he needed about 15 hours of study to pass the test.
Now, because there is always a test around the corner, instead of maybe once a year, the soldiers are constantly training for the test, saying that during downtime, the troops train on weapon systems and radios.
When asked if cavalry scouts can combine their tower of spurs – a gauntlet similar to insignia, but credits a set of spurs that can sometimes be worn as part of a soldier’s uniform – with an ESB event, Terenas said it would “just be greedy.”
— Steve Beynon can be contacted at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
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