By Army Sgt. 1st Class Scott Maynard
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 17, 2008 - Soldiers from 203rd Brigade Support Battalion here tested their soldiering skills in a series of physical and mental tests known as the "Eagle Challenge" earlier this month. The April 6 challenge tested physical endurance with a 1-mile run with rifles; a four-and-a-half-mile foot march, which included stops to test general soldiering knowledge and unit history; a 30-minute physical fitness and agility session; and four testing stations that evaluated soldiers' ability to treat casualties; disassemble and assemble a rifle, perform a functions check then load it; and make a radio check.
"It's not all soldiers' common task training in the challenge," said Army 1st Lt. Natassia Fay, the battalion logistician. "There are rules that must be followed, as well."
The rules stipulated that contestants could compete as individuals or teams, there was to be no use of rank during the challenge and no disputes with the cadre, and a positive attitude had to be maintained.
Mission requirements prevented many soldiers in the unit from participating, but 48 out of 250 available soldiers prequalified and took on the team-building event.
Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Kelly J. Lawler, addressed the soldiers, known as "crows," before the event began.
"Thank you for participating in the Eagle Challenge,' Lawler said. "Right now you are a 'crow,' but by the end of the day some of you will be 'Eagles.' You are the reason for this battalion's success, and for that I thank you. ... I have my 'buckle.' I want you to have yours."
The sign of an "Eagle" is a brass belt buckle with the head of an eagle wrapped in the words, "203rd Brigade Support Battalion, Eagle Challenge, Support and Defend, 3rd Infantry Division."
"You will be proud to wear your belt buckle after today's challenge," Lawler said. "Other soldiers will ask where you earned it, and you can tell them FOB Hammer, Iraq."
The crows were herded off to have their rucksacks inventoried, and the challenge began.
"Hurry up Crows, get those rucks emptied out," barked Capt. Fenicia L. Jackson, the battalion operations officer.
"Crows! You are not moving fast enough; front-leaning rest position, move!" she shouted, putting the soldiers in the familiar push-up position.
After the soldiers warmed up for the 1-mile run with Jackson, she inventoried the gear, had them load it up in a truck, and moved them to the starting line.
Lawler was there waiting for the group.
"Are you warmed up, Crows?" Lawler asked.
"Maybe another warm-up exercise will get you ready! The side-straddle hop; ready, exercise one, two, three!" he said, using the Army term for jumping-jacks.
After the soldiers finished the exercises, Lawler sent them running in the sun. Some left with smiles, some with frowns and many with a set jaw and determined look.
Once the run was complete, the contestants put on their rucksacks and moved on to the foot march. Sgt. Michael Decker, was in the lead, with Spc. Clinton Biddle close behind. They were followed by team "Wolfpack," which consisted of Sgt. Paul Zadzura, Spc. Mark Shaheer and Spc. Louis Pinault.
After the march, the leader board remained the same. Decker stayed out in front; Biddle a close second; and Staff Sgt. Willie Farrisin third place for the singles competition. Team Wolfpack led in the team category; the leader board remained the same for the rest of the events.
The march was followed by a mandatory rest period at the home station.
However no one got any rest.
Behind the break area lurked a giant water truck. The competitors were soon drenched and covered in mud.
"I didn't see that coming," said Sgt. 1st Class Perry Flournoy. "It felt good at first. I was hot and sweaty after moving out with that ruck on. Next thing I know, we were covered in mud."
The 30-minute 'mandatory break' turned into an exercise in discipline, dedication and motivation in which soldiers had to demonstrate low- and high-crawl techniques.
"At that point we were half way through. I have never been a quitter; I wasn't going to start then," said Flournoy, who was elected the event's Most Valuable Player by the cadre. "By the time the break was over, I needed a break. My [protective goggles were] covered in mud, which meant I was covered in mud."
After the "break," contestants were released to the testing stations according to the time they came in to home station.
Wet and dripping with mud, the crows took their score sheets and were directed from station to station by the cadre. At each station, they dried out a little more, until they finished the challenge.
"I knew this team had what it takes to win," said Zadzura, a member of the Wolfpack. "We pushed each other hard. ... We won together."
The day capped off with a banquet to award the soldiers their belt buckles and recognize the winners with Army Achievement Medals.
The event started with 48 Crows and finished with 48 Eagles earning their right of passage - an Eagle Challenge belt buckle.
The day was best described by Capt. Emanuel Velez, the commander of Company A.
"For a few moments today; I forgot I was in Iraq, he said.
(Army Sgt. 1st Class Scott Maynard is assigned to 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.)