The soldiers were elated and proud as they stood in formation in the morning sun, waiting for their loved ones or colleagues to pin their newly earned badges to their uniforms.
They were also exhausted, having just completed a 12-mile foot march — carrying heavy rucksacks, no less — as the final labor of an intense two-week competition for the right to wear the coveted insignia.
The troops lined up Sept. 25 to receive the Expert Field Medical Badge in a brief, socially distanced ceremony at Fort Carson.
The badge represents the elite of the Army medical community: Less than 10% of its soldiers are authorized to wear it, according to Capt. Alyssa Schlegel, who helped run the grueling test.
The competition has about an 80% attrition rate. Fort Carson officials said 113 soldiers began the journey two weeks ago, and only 22 completed it.
“You are truly the best of the best,” said guest speaker Travis Worrell, a retired combat medic who earned the badge in 2010.
Combat medics need to know a lot more than how to treat battle wounds. They must possess daytime and nighttime land-navigation skills and working knowledge of Army communication systems. And they have to be ready and able to use a weapon in a firefight.
The curriculum tests soldiers on these skills, and more.
In order to be eligible for the competition, soldiers must have high physical fitness test scores, knowledge of small weapon systems and a current CPR certification.
During the course, they must successfully complete more than three dozen arduous tasks, including treating simulated wounds, moving injured soldiers out of the line of fire, and mastering an 80-question written exam covering the massive amounts of information they have to absorb.
“We have a lot of things to learn in a short amount of time,” said 1st Lt. Claire Schmelzenbach, one of the group’s top graduates. “It’s very intense.”
The foot march is the culminating event, and it takes place before dawn on the morning of graduation. Soldiers must complete the 12-mile hike in three hours or less, or they fail.
Col. Scott Knight, senior trainer and evaluator, said that occasionally a candidate will fight and claw through the entire two weeks, only to have to drop out just hours before graduation because they failed to complete the march in the requisite three hours.
“We lost two (candidates) like that this morning,” Knight said after the ceremony. “It’s a challenge all the way to the end.”
The possibility of failing, right up to graduation day, made3 success that much sweeter for the 22 soldiers left standing at the end.
“My feet hurt a little, and I’ve been up since 2:30 this morning,” Schmelzenbach said. “But I’m excited, and very proud.”