Earning The Expert Field Medical Badge
Every year, hundreds of medical personnel descend upon the Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most heavily fortified border, in attempt to earn the Expert Field Medical Badge (EFMB).
Within miles of Communist North Korea, a cadre of supporting staff gathers to set up and validate three combat testing lanes, a land navigation course and a 12 mile foot march course. To simulate realistic combat scenarios, role playing medical patients are moulaged with injuries common to combat operations complete with fake blood, while explosive simulators and smoke canisters are set off.
With its establishment in 1965, the EFMB is intended to recognize medical personnel who demonstrate exceptional competence and expert performance of medical proficiency and physical stamina. Across the Army last year, the EFMB pass rate was approximately 17%, making it one of the most difficult badges to obtain. Here in Korea, there are no exceptions.
In Korea, there are two consecutive back-to-back cycles of EFMB testing. On May 7th, 2012 the first cycle of 104 candidates stood tall on a helicopter landing zone ready to begin what might be the most physically and emotionally exhausting 11-days of their lives. On May 20th, another 109 stood ready to earn their badge. With both cycles totaling 213 candidates, only 45 (21%) earned their badge.
The first five days of EFMB is referred to as ‘standardization.’ By platoons, candidates are rotated through stations where they are all taught the skills they will be tested on in the week to come. These demanding and long days are concluded with nightly study hall, where candidates have more one-on-one time with the evaluators and training staff.
After a day of study hall in which candidates could challenge any area they felt needed practice, the EFMB testing begins with a 60 question written test. Many candidates admit to studying for this test for as many as five months in advance. Covering field sanitation, basic combat medic knowledge, soldiering tasks and detainee operations, this test isn’t something to underestimate. Though the candidates are provided the opportunity to take a retest the night before the road march if they pass all other testable areas, they strive to pass the first time in order to concentrate their efforts on the next upcoming challenge.
As early as day one, many candidates return to camp to pack their bags and return to their unit. “It’s not just about learning the tasks and mastering them, it’s about performing these tasks flawlessly and in correct sequence” says Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cornes the EFMB Test Board Chairman. “With explosives detonating, patients screaming for aid and an evaluator at your side, it is too easy to forget a step or leave something out.”
The event that typically sends the most candidates home is day and night land navigation. In one instance, a platoon of 29 soldiers set out on night land navigation, four hours later, only 6 passed. According to Army’s Master Sergeant Jeffrey Degarmo “all EFMB sites pose their own unique challenges, but this EFMB site is exceptionally Hilly. This adds an element of complexity to the already challenging land navigation testing.”
Of the three combat testing lanes, for most the first lane proves the most tedious and challenging. This lane encompasses all of the testable medical tasks. From triaging and prioritizing injuries to performing medical care under fire amongst the several patients, it takes roughly 90 minutes to navigate this lane. The Lane One OIC, Army Captain Baron Moehlenbrock, says “candidates on this lane are tested on all the EFMB medical tasks and the testing is very detail oriented. The Patient Assessment alone is 6 pages of tasks. If you miss just one small step, you are a No-Go for this six page task.”
The other two combat testing lanes are comprised of an array of different grueling tasks designed to have the candidate not only demonstrate the ability to treat patients, but to move them from the point of injury to echelons of higher care. These tasks include medical evacuation, combat communication using Army radios, a patient litter obstacle course, different patient carries and drags, weapons disassembly and functions check, setting up a landing zone, reacting to unexploded ordinances and performing a number of steps in a simulated chemically contaminated area. Candidates were required to put on all their chemical protective gear, decontaminate themselves and their equipment, call in a chemical report, treat themselves for nerve agent poisoning and decontaminate their medical patient.
After successfully completing three combat testing lanes, a written test and day and night land navigation, the candidates have one last remaining obstacle to overcome, a 12 mile foot march that must be completed in under three hours. Candidates wearing tactical Army equipment step off before day light carrying a M16 or M4 rifle and a rucksack weighing approximately 35 pounds.
Though making it to the foot march fills the candidate with motivation and adrenaline, that alone doesn’t guarantee a finish within three hours. The 12 mile foot march can almost always be counted on for a display of dramatic events.
“I will be left with a lasting impression of the last few minutes of the final foot march,” said LTC Cornes, “it tugs on your heart strings when a candidate collapses less than fifty feet of the finish line. The candidate tried so hard to get back up, but his body was giving up.” Meanwhile, 46 year old LTC David Song came running around the corner in a full sprint. With less than two seconds left on the clock, LTC Song crossed the finish line.
With closing ceremonies complete, 45 medical personnel proved their expertise and earned their right to wear the Expert Field Medical Badge.