It’s Not Always Best to Stay With Your Friends
I send my four children a letter each month which includes a personal story from my days in the military. This is one of those stories.
I was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division as a new infantry private in the paratroops in January 1972. (Wow that was a long time ago!) A few weeks after joining my unit, the company was marched to headquarters to form up with the other companies in our battalion. I don’t know how it is now in the military, but back then we didn’t have smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, or any other way to get news other than through our chain of command. And believe me, they didn’t tell little old nineteen year old Private Hartman very much. So when about 200 of the soldiers in our battalion were called out of formation and ordered onto trucks, I had no idea what was happening. However, since all of my fellow privates in my platoon were put on the trucks along with me, I wasn’t too concerned. As it turned out, none of them knew any more about what was going on than I did.
After a thirty minute truck ride, we stopped, got off, and lined up in formation. An officer walked up to the front of our formation and explained what was happening. We had all volunteered to participate in the US Army’s Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB) testing. It was a great honor, he explained, and only the best of the best would earn the coveted award.
The what? I thought.
Naturally, I didn’t ask any questions aloud. After all, I was only a private, and back in 1972, privates who asked too many stupid questions were occasionally taken into a room to be ‘counseled’ by two or three sergeants. When the counseling was done, the private often had a few bruises to attest to the effectiveness of the counseling session. So, I kept my mouth shut. Now, I knew what a Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) was. Heck, the Vietnam War was still going on, and almost all of the sergeants and a lot of the specialists and even a few privates had CIBs since they’d served as infantrymen in a combat zone. Even as new to the military as I was, I’d often found myself jealously looking at soldiers wearing CIBs over the left-breast pocket of their uniforms while the left side of my uniform was conspicuously bare. But I’d never heard of an Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB) before that morning.
Well, through osmosis from listening to the wiser soldiers in the formation, I found out that only one soldier (a sergeant) in our company had an EIB, and only seven soldiers (all sergeants) had earned the EIB in the entire battalion the previous year. On top of that, all seven of those sergeants had CIBs which took precedence over the EIB, so no one in the battalion currently wore an EIB on their uniform. Since most of the soldiers in our formation were newly arrived personnel who’d never been in combat, we all began talking about how cool it would be to get to sew an EIB onto our uniforms. It wouldn’t be a CIB, but we figured it would be better than having nothing on our uniforms.
Now, I’d never been much at taking tests or doing homework, and I had the horrible grades in high school to prove it. Consequently, I had no illusions I’d be awarded an EIB. However, I was determined to do my best. Besides, I was with my friends, and taking tests sure beat cleaning latrines, so I wasn’t complaining.
As it so happened, our testing consisted of a lot of hands-on stuff. Our formation was divided into small groups, and we were marched to various round-robin stations to prove our mettle. Each of us had to throw dummy grenades, disassemble and assemble weapons, plot points and routes on maps, call in simulated artillery on some kind of horizontal board with small buildings on it which gave out puffs of smoke where the artillery round supposedly hit. (To this day, I still don’t understand how that thing was supposed to work.) We also setup dummy claymore mines along with a few personnel and antitank mines I’d never seen prior to that day. There were a lot of other tests which I really don’t remember after 45 years. (Wow. That really was a long time ago.)
Eventually, the tests were completed late in the afternoon, and we were loaded onto trucks and shipped back to our units. No one told us squat about how we did. But it didn’t matter. If only the best of the best were awarded EIBs, it was nothing I needed to be concerned about. I’d never excelled at anything during my 19 years of life. I was just content being with my friends.
The next morning, everyone who’d participated in EIB testing the previous day were marched to battalion headquarters and put into formation. A sergeant began reading off names and told to line up in a different formation. One by one, all of my friends’ names were called. Before long, only a handful of other soldiers and I remained in the formation. I remember feeling sad. It wasn’t that I’d expected to pass the tests, but I’d at least hoped to qualify for the second day of testing so I could stay with my friends.
Suddenly, the sergeant ordered the soldiers whose names had been called out to return to their units. The soldiers still in formation were told to board a single truck (there weren’t many of us left) to take the second day of EIB testing. As our truck pulled out of the parking lot, I remember watching my friends march back to our company. I remember thinking, How come I’m on the truck and not them? It was a complete mystery to me.
The second day of testing didn’t last as long, and we finished by noon. Once again, no one told us how we did, and I didn’t ask. (I was only a private after all.) I don’t remember what tests we took on the second day, but I don’t remember them being very hard. Still, I hadn’t been given any training to prepare for the EIB test other than what I’d learned in basic training, so I wasn’t hopeful.
The morning of the third day, the entire battalion was assembled in formation. A crusty-old sergeant read out 33 names. One of them was mine. We lined up at the front of the formation, and our battalion commander walked up and pinned EIBs on our chests. (An EIB is a badge which looks like a rifle. Unlike a CIB, it doesn’t have a wreath around it.) I vaguely remember the battalion commander talking about how the soldiers standing at the front of the formation were the best in the battalion and how everyone should try to emulate their achievement.
Really? I thought. Me? The best? But I’ve never excelled at anything.
Later that day, I went to the cleaners and had them sew an EIB badge onto my uniforms. For the next year, I was one of the few soldiers in the battalion, and the only one in my company, to wear an EIB. That did a lot for my self-esteem. I don’t mind saying I was proud. It was a little strange to have my friends be envious of me.
Moral of the Story: Sometimes, it’s not always best to stay with your friends. Your path may be different from their path. Also, you can often do so much more than you think you can. Don’t ever let anyone or anything hold you back. If you don’t try, you won’t know, and you’ll always wonder. I’ve heard it said that the only person who never fails is one who never tries anything hard. I think that would be a bad way to live a life.