JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --
Imagine treading water in full-duty uniform after swimming four laps, running sprints, and holding a chin-up for more than a minute.
These are only three of the six events service members completed to earn the prestigious German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge, or GAFPB, one of the most sought after foreign awards approved to be worn on U.S. military uniforms.
An oval wreath of oak leaves with a German eagle at its center, either donned in gold, silver, or bronze, symbolizes the extensive annual test administered to German soldiers. Agility, endurance, strength, and mental toughness are necessary to earn this badge, as each physical event builds upon another to test overall abilities as warfighters.
The week-long GAFPB challenge is open to all ranks, professions, and branches, giving U.S. Soldiers and Airmen and German army soldiers a chance to interact with fellow armed and coalition forces.
German army Lt. Col. Ingo Beisse, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) German army liaison officer, said he enjoyed coordinating the assessment to give the almost 200 U.S. service members competing a sense of what it’s like for his soldiers in Europe.
“If you share a common set of memories and you know what it means, it brings you a little closer,” Beisse explained. “We are getting so much from the Americans, so this is a good option for us to give a little back.”
To earn the badge, participants need to meet the set standard for each event -- a 100-meter swim, 11-by-10-meter sprint, flexed arm hang, 1,000-meter run, ruck march with a 33-pound load, and marksmanship test using the M9 pistol.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Alice Park, U.S. Army School of Music Advanced Individual Training (AIT) course manager, has earned the gold badge three times before. Even after training several months in advance, she said she still feels nervous before every event.
“I love being able to work toward something,” Park said. “Even though I have already done these three times, it doesn’t make it any easier at all. It’s still nerve-wracking and scary but it’s exciting. That’s why I want to keep doing this.”
When first faced with the challenge, Park was ill-prepared. She failed the 100-meter swim -- a primary eliminator event for participants in the challenge.
The swim must be completed in full-duty uniform, minus cover and boots, in less than four minutes. Before exiting the pool, participants must also shed their outer garments down to their swimwear while treading water.
“After I failed the swim, I had two or three months before the make-up swim to train,” she said. “I swam every day and was able to pass. The feeling was amazing. Now, I try to swim throughout the year on a regular basis and train in my uniform a few months out.”
Now as a veteran of the competition hosted by TRADOC, Park finds herself in a coaching role for first-time competitors. Dispelling the belief that the competition is too difficult for some, she shares her experiences with future competitors and even helps prepare them for the challenge.
“I enjoy being able to share what the challenge is like with new people,” she said. “I like [assuring] them it’s not as hard as they think and that they can do it.”
Although the event appears to be an individual challenge, Park said a team-like connection grows among participants.
“One thing I really enjoy is the morale-building aspect of supporting one another and cheering each other on throughout the different events,” said Park. “I recently learned the bulk of the participants were AIT students, and I thought it was neat they had the opportunity to participate. What a great way to ignite and motivate the young Soldiers at the start of their military career.”
Chasing her fourth gold badge, Park hopes to be an inspiration to other service members to take on the challenge.
“I aspire to be a leader [who] can inspire, encourage, and guide other service members to be better,” Park exclaimed. “I’m a petite female, and if I can do this, then everyone can!”
“I would say, going into the challenge, I felt a healthy combination of nervousness and excitement with a touch of absolute dread,” said U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. David Neil Regner, the newest member of the Air Combat Command Heritage of America Band
Unlike Park, this was Regner’s first experience with the international fitness test, and he said he took the opportunity to connect with his unit and become familiar with the joint community.
“As difficult as the challenge was, it gave me time to have some great conversations with my fellow Airmen and even some Army Soldiers,” said the newly-appointed flight commander. “I met some wonderful people, heard fantastic stories, and shared in some pretty good laughs.”
Regner said when made the unexpected decision to participate in the challenge, he was clueless about what he was really getting into. Thankfully, he wasn’t going through the challenge alone and began training in mid-September with three other Airmen in his unit.
Just as Park mentioned, the lieutenant had a difficult time with the swim and didn’t qualify on his first attempt.
“Don't go into the GAFPB without having first gone through each challenge on your own, especially the swim,” Regner said. “You'd think taking your clothes off in water would be simple -- but you'd be wrong! It goes without saying, but the more you know, the better you'll prepare and the better you'll perform.”
With friendly competitive banter and enthusiastic cheers fueling a supportive environment, Regner connected with his fellow competitors. The flight commander felt the rewarding opportunity also enhanced his team’s readiness.
“Events like this one provide a unique opportunity for new connections,” he said. “Not only between Army and Air Force, but with foreign military too, creating a stronger fighting force.”
Although the preliminary events end this week, some competitors will have the chance to requalify or get better scores during a make-up week. With the badge ceremony still several weeks away, all will have to wait for the final results in hopes they may be able to proudly wear the badge so many work so hard for.