As we pulled through the gate of Ft. Stewart Ga., I noticed how eerily similar all military bases are to each other. There are armed guards checking paperwork and IDs. Combat Veterans mostly, the guards chosen to be the first line of defense at an Army base usually mean business. If you see two or three soldiers standing post at the gate you can rest assured that somewhere near is a radio connecting them to a hornets nest of armed soldiers.
The world was beginning to change for me. I noticed evil now. I saw, first hand, the affects of evil on the mutilated and tortured refugees we treated in the desert. We left the ones responsible for such torture alive and in power in Iraq. We knew that job wasn’t over and that some day, sooner than later, we would be back fighting in that desert. The Army bases we traveled to, including our home at Ft. Benning, reflected the awareness of such unfinished business. The equipment, vehicles, uniforms and training we endured were constant reminders we had a new enemy. The Army camouflage colors went from a pre Gulf War OD green to a desert camouflaged tan and brown. It was a sudden, violent change comparable to rear ending a car in traffic. Decades of Army green covered everything were now desert tan colored everything. I didn’t have to be told, I knew.
“Stay alert, stay alive.”
The younger guys on the bus were oblivious to such changes. They were on a field trip to experience new adventures. Like school boys in grammar school, they were doe eyed looking out the windows for new scenery to intoxicate them. Savannah, the Georgian city thirty minutes outside Ft. Stewart, is one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the southern United States. The bus slowly drove down the cobblestone streets of Savannah en route to the Army base. We rode under the arching hundred year old Oak trees, adorned with hanging Spanish Moss, as we inched our way to the test. The beauty was so overwhelming that the normally over excited younger medics were still silent when the gate guards waved us through the checkpoint. Their nerves were now holding their mouths closed as we exited the bus.
There were 537 candidates testing for the E.F.M.B. this rotation. I remember the number because they had a whiteboard nailed to a tree by the proctor’s tent with the number written on it in erasable black marker ink. I knew it was erasable ink without having to investigate. The number would change as soon as testing began and would change drastically.
The proctor’s tent smelled like a mixture of hot food, hot coffee, cigarettes and soap. All the luxuries of not being in combat. I would have to avoid the proctor’s tent at all costs. I was aware that distractions, fancied or real, could cause me to defocus. I left all thoughts of Annetta, food, home, sleep, refugees, Savanah and the changing colors of the Army there at the whiteboard tree and went to sign in.
The testing started at 1200 hours (noon) with a loud Artillery boom. We had our marching orders and were expected to report, ready to test, to the task given to us in our itinerary. We were now numbers. The numbers assigned to us were attached to a stripped steel pot type Helmut we had to wear on our heads at all times. My platoon was scattered all over doing their own assigned tasks. I started with the Survival Lane. I was focused. On our itinerary next to each task was a check box identifying “GO” or “NO GO”. With the check marked NO GO on any task we were considered a “washout” and done with the test. We would then to report to the chow tent and we would be allowed to shower. The Army has a subliminal way of trying to get you to quit. Everything was set up to separate the elite from the ordinary. The Army was downsizing, as it does after every war, and wanted to keep only the elite.
Sgt Walker had purposely trained me for several months, day after day, how to operate as a E.F.M.B. candidate. I became aware of his plan after I received my second GO. I was prepared and now “applying my training and experience to the situation I currently found myself in” as he repeatedly screamed at me during his drilling. I moved through each task with a purpose, identifying potential obstacles and removing them from my line of fire. I was controlling my environment with resolve. At the end of day one I was still a GO.
After testing on day one the whiteboard tree held the number of 210. We had lost over 50% of our candidates on the very first day. As we received our MREs for evening chow the Proctors told us that number was still to high. They planned to make it even lower by morning and lower still by end of day two. As I wandered back to my foxhole I wondered where C.J. was, who from our platoon was still left and where they all were dug in at. I didn’t see anyone familiar along my travels on day one. However, I had to stay focused. There would be time to exchange stories after it was all said and done.
The night went by as expected. Every couple hours a simulated Artillery shell would explode somewhere in the perimeter just to wake us up and confuse us.
For me, day two started with the day land navigation course. We were handed maps and compasses with marked objectives on the map. The objective, once found, had a number. We were to route our path using pace counts and map reading skills and record the number of the objective. Sgt. Walker had me reading maps and counting my pace everywhere I went. I passed day land navigation without incident. Day two progressed with the same results for me as day one. At evening chow on day two I was still a GO. The number on the whiteboard tree read 101. The Proctors wanted to be down to below 50 by the end of the night. Tonight we all had the same task: the night land navigation course. The night course took skill, determination, resolve and extreme patience. Walking through the subtropical forests of Ft. Steward at night wasn’t for the weak of heart. I may have gotten lucky on objective 2 on the night course because I fell into a small hidden stream not on the map. The cool water was a refreshing surprise in the humidity. Somehow, after my unplanned swim, I remembered my pace count and didn’t get lost. At the end of the night I was still a GO. The whiteboard tree read 87.
With still no sign of my platoon or any familiar faces I studied for the written test by moonlight. Day three consisted of the written test, the 12 mile road march and the award ceremony. I had survived two full days of testing, however i knew not to feel proud just yet. There is no “almost” badges given to soldiers.
Out of the darkness stumbled a clean smelling officer who was calling me by the number on my helmut. I saw the shiny reflection of the moon bounce off his 1st lieutenant metal on his hat. He was a chaplain. He offered me a Celtic Cross necklace and prayed with me in the darkness. When he left my side I remember feeling at peace and relaxed. I slept through the night wearing the necklace, a plain black rope holding the dull metallic cross around my neck. Oddly, I don’t remember any explosions that night.
The morning of day three I saw C.J. in line for breakfast chow. I was so excited to see him that he had to slow my run at him with a hockey style body check into a tree. Apparently, there were five of us left. We planned to eat together, study for the test together then march together. After chow we also planned to take some Motrin for the road march. By the time the pain would kick in, we rationalized, the Motrin would be working. I took four pills; 3200mg I would later find out.
All five of us passed the written test.
As we lined up, dressed and ready at the starting line of the march, we noticed the humidity. We were now all loaded down with rifles and ruck sacks and the heat was beginning to affect us from the sun above and the ground below. The road march was mapped out over tank trails. Sand. Hot red sand. The Proctors last attempt at assisting our failure was sand. I was sweating profusely already and we hadn’t even started yet. Also, my stomach was beginning to turn and twist. I felt nauseous. We had done dozens of road marches at Ft. Benning. I didn’t understand what was causing my reaction. However, there was no time to understand. I wasn’t going to quit no matter what happened. I was only a few hours away from receiving the Badge. The only thing standing in my way was this sand. I would have to hydrate the entire way in order to not fall out from heat stroke.
My thoughts were interrupted by the horn marking the start of the road march. All 87 of us started to run at the same time.