While browsing Facebook recently, I read an article and watched a video about an Army captain who collapsed near the finish line at her EFMB road march, the final stage of the U.S. Army’s Expert Field Medical Badge training and field trials. The article (link at bottom of this page) appears to be at least a couple years old, but seeing it for the first time reminded me of my own experience with the EFMB some 25 years ago….
My goal was to break the Ft. Polk post record for the EFMB 12-mile road march, which was around 1hr 50min (don’t remember the exact time now b/c it was so long ago). At any rate, my coach for the march was my squad leader, Sgt Juarez. He told me that to break the record, I needed to maintain a pace that would put me at the halfway point in under 1hr, and that to do that, I needed to shuffle back n forth between jogging and speed walking (all in full pack plus rifle, gas mask and two full canteens of water). I remember cruising to the Mile 6 marker in just under an hour, and was on a comfortable pace to break the record. “Pace yourself” my coach reminded me. “No problem, I got this Sarge!” I said as I shuffled on. One mile later, the wheels began to fall off…
Suddenly I caught a cramp in one of my calves which slowed me down considerably. Still, I wanted that record and started pushing ahead even harder. Sgt Juarez, who did the whole road march with me (he already had his EFMB and as such, wasn’t being timed and didn’t have to carry any gear), admonished me to slow down and forget about the record. He reminded me that I had passed all field tests, and that the road march was the finish line. He warned that if I pushed on at the current pace and seriously injured myself, I wouldn’t be able to finish within the 3hr time limit.
Stubbornly I continued to push myself in spite of his warnings. “Talford, I’m telling you Bro… forget about that record man; you just want to finish in time!” he further admonished.
I barked back. “No! I was on pace for the record! My leg will recover in a minute and I’ll keep going for it. It’s just a cramp, it’ll work itself out. I can’t stop trying now. I’ve come too far!”
He looked at me and shook his head. “You ain’t getting that record at this point Bro! You made a good run at it, but that cramp is gonna slow you down; LET IT GO!”
“NO! I’M GOING FOR IT,” I shouted.
“Okayyyy,” he said with a foreboding tone, eyebrows stretched with a look of seriousness. “Drink some more water,” he urged.
I chugged down more water from my canteen, hoping that somehow the fluid would quickly work its way down and rehydrate my cramping calf. It didn’t work. Before I made it to the Mile 8 marker, my other calf blew out. In excruciating pain, tears of disappointment began to fill my eyes as I saw my chance to break the record slip away. Only my pride in not wanting to show any emotion in front of my fellow soldiers kept the tears from breaking and rolling down my face.
At that point, I realized Sgt Juarez was right in that my hopes of breaking the record were shattered; and that I needed to shift my focus to crossing the finish line in under 3:00. He asked me to stop and sit for a minute or two to try and rub my calf muscles into relaxing. He saw that I was in bad shape, but somehow knew there was no way I was gonna quit. Knowing that every minute I rested was a minute lost, I picked myself up and carried on. Before I could complete another mile, one of my quadriceps started cramping.
“OH CRAP!” I yelled as I grabbed the front of my thigh, now limping even more profoundly than I had been.
So there I was… a little over three miles from the finish line with both calves and now one quad “blown out.” (It was so long ago now that I cannot remember exactly which leg it was. Eventually it would not matter because less than a mile further down the road, my other quad gave out!)
I stopped again briefly to drink water and try to breathe through the pain. I had observed other soldiers along the way who appeared to have given up: sitting or lying along the roadside in obvious agony. Giving up and lying down with my kevlar under my head might have been tempting, but I told myself weeks earlier that I was only going to do the EFMB once (I was assigned to an infantry unit and we had a policy that made it mandatory to take it every year until you passed).
Anyone who’s ever taken it will tell you that the EFMB is brutal (there is a link to a detailed description at the bottom of this article). The more senior medics in my unit told those of us taking it for the first time just how brutal it would be, and that no amount of training could truly prepare you for being out there if you’d never done it. They were all right; yet I had passed every stage of the field trial to that point with flying colors, the toughest of which had been Night Land Navigation. Now, here I was in the final qualification: 12 miles in under three hours: hurting, witnessing others who had quit, knowing they had already failed to qualify in an earlier stage and deciding it wasn’t worth it to put their bodies through anymore torture. As I rested, I realized that my dreams of finishing the march in record time were gone, and that time, at that stage, was my enemy.
Sgt Juarez had gone into the tree line for the brief moments that I rested and re-emerged with a sturdy tree branch measuring close to six feet in length. “Here Talford, take this and pull your @ss along this road or you’re not going to make it Bro!”
Again I took note of my position. I was just under three miles from the end, trudging along a damp dirt road in the middle of the wilderness of Fort Polk, Louisiana, grunting in excruciating pain while racing against the clock. Hoping to take my mind off the pain and motivate me, Sgt Juarez resorted to trash talk…
“Come on Talford! Look at yourself man!!! You’re getting passed by old ladies!” (There were medical officers and NCOs out there who seemed to be in their mid-thirties or older, who’d appeared to have been in the Army long enough to be close to retirement, but were soldiers who had obviously failed their EFMB trials year after year, who had either failed again (the road march is not optional), or were finally a three-hour-or-less finish away from finally getting the coveted badge of honor.)
Sgt J’s trash talk caused me to push harder for short bursts; the pain would slow me back down. Still, I pushed on. I eventually made it past mile marker 11 and knew I was roughly the distance of four laps around a high school track from the finish line.
“Sgt Juarez, how much time do I have left?” I asked, breathing heavily.
“I don’t know Talford; it ain’t looking good right now Bro! You’d better forget about whatever pain you’re feeling in your legs and move your@ss or you’re not gonna make it, and guess what? You’re gonna have to come out here again next year and do this ? all over again! Now let’s go! Come on… Move your@ss… MOVE IT MEDIC!”
Picture this… probably the funniest thing anyone present that day had ever seen in their life… An 18 y/o soldier, doing a hobbling run, pulling himself with a 6′ staff which was essentially a dead tree branch… struggling to run in full gear, rifle slung across his back and rucksack… Can’t imagine it yet? Try picturing a zombie from the AMC series, “The Walking Dead,” dressed like a soldier, trying to run while steadying himself with a six foot staff!
I could tell we were nearing the end because there were more and more soldiers lining both sides of the road, all cheering for EFMB candidates from their respective units. I was still being passed by other soldiers though, which really irked me.
Sgt Juarez yelled, “Talford, man look at you! You look like Moses pulling yourself with that staff man! LOOK AT YOU!” He laughed as he walked beside me, pointing at me and bending over at the waist mockingly. I glared at him while grunting in anger and pain. “GRRRRRRHHH” was all I could muster.
“Hahaha!!! You sound like Rocky! Hey Yo… Adriannnnn!!!!” he scoffed.
If I weren’t in pain I might have laughed with him. In retrospect, the Moses and Rocky references were pretty funny. I guess I did sound like Rocky Balboa the way I agonizingly grunted and spoke. “Come on Bro; you’re close to the finish line, HURRY UP!”
As I neared the finish line, I saw some of my training buddies from Army Medic School at Ft Sam Houston who were members of other units there at Polk. They cheered me on… “Come on Talford, you’re almost there!”
I looked over to my right at Sgt Juarez walking alongside me as he looked at his watch. “How much time do I have Sarge?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that man! If you don’t move your ?you’re gonna fail Bro! LET’S GO!”
Finally, I made it across the finish line, chin high and shoulders back, reminiscent of a proud old WWII soldier, returning from the war yet wanting to look his best in spite of the hell he’d been through. The time called out by the timekeeper was 2:53. I nearly collapsed. Sgt Juarez caught me and helped me hobble over to a grassy embankment. “You made it Talford! I’m proud of you!”
Gasping for air, I replied “Sarge… I made it with seven whole minutes to spare! I didn’t know if I would get there in time… Thanks for your help man,” I said with a quivering voice: half weak from the punishment my body endured, half emotional but no longer able to fight back the tears, which were now tears of triumph.
“No problem Talford. I’m sorry you didn’t get the record but I’m damn proud of you for going so hard at it.”
“Honestly, when you said you were gonna try to break it, I thought ‘yeah right… no way you’re gonna break that record.’ You were on pace for over half the race though. You’re one tough, stubborn son of a <expletive>! A lot of guys would’ve given up but you didn’t quit!”
By that time, two of the ladies from my graduating class at Ft Sam who had been cheering me on found me on the side of the road. They brought me some fresh water and began massaging my legs to help with the cramping. Sgt Juarez looked at me and smiled… “Well Talford, it looks like you’re in good hands now… plus I’ll be d*^%*d if I’m gonna get down there and massage your legs! I’ll see you back at the Battalion Aid Station later!”
As he walked away, I shouted one last question at him… “Hey Sgt J! Why wouldn’t you tell me how much time I had left every time I asked you after I started cramping up?”
He answered, “Because I knew you were hurting bad and I knew it was gonna be close. I wanted you to keep going and not give up!”
“There was no chance of that ever happening Sarge; NO CHANCE!” He smiled at me and lit up a smoke… “See you back at the Aid Station troop; good job!” he said, then disappeared into the crowd.
One of my fellow medics continued to massage my cramping legs. “How does that feel?” she asked. “It’s nice,” I replied… “But you really don’t have to do that. My uniform is soaking wet and I’m kind of embarrassed.” She just smiled and said, “It’s okay, it doesn’t bother me!” Under normal circumstances my pride would not allow me to ever let a lady within five feet of me with the way I smelled and how soggy my uniform was. On that day though, because she didn’t seem to care; with as bad a shape as I was in, neither did I.
A detailed description of the Expert Field Medical Badge Trials can be found here.
Original Article referenced at the beginning of this post can be found here.