FORT STEWART, Ga. -- Soupy mud seeped through Sgt. William Bryant's camouflaged pants. Yellow smoke wafted into his face. Barbed wire snagged suspenders holding his canteens and other gear.
Still, Sgt. Bryant kept crawling. He pulled his end of a stretcher through the slop, sliding the load on command.
"Prepare to lift. Lift," shouted another soldier as they inched forward.
As Sgt. Bryant and three other soldiers carrying the stretcher emerged from the barbed wire crawl, other soldiers grinned over their mud-drenched clothes.
"It's part of the rite of passage," Capt. Doug Galuszka said. "You've got to get nasty on the low wire."
Sgt. Bryant and his teammates from the 26th Forward Support Battalion tried this week to earn their Expert Field Medical Badge, an award symbolizing the best military medics. Only one in every five medics who attempts the two-week trial earns the badge, said Capt. Galuszka, the Fort Stewart officer who oversaw the badge testing.
On Feb. 2, 211 medics reported for the medical badge testing at a camp on Fort Stewart's northwestern border. By Tuesday, 107 dropped from the test, Capt. Galuszka said. It ends today with a 12-mile road march.
Graduates wear the badge on their uniform jackets, just above the U.S. Army patch.
"If you're in the medical field, you should want this badge," said 1st Lt. Jason Haney, of the 26th Support Battalion.
The military created the badge in 1964 to test battlefield skills of soldiers stationed in hospitals and clinics.
"In war time, these people get pulled out of hospitals and put on the battlefields," Capt. Galuszka said.
Some medics, such as Staff Sgt. DeForest Schupska, earn their expert medical badges during combat. Staff Sgt. Schupska served in Operation Desert Storm as a medical supply clerk, ordering everything from bandages to blood for transfusions.
One night, confusion broke out as helicopters and armored ambulances swarmed into his camp.
"We went into our emergency mode," Staff Sgt. Schupska said.
Forty wounded Iraqi prisoners of war had been brought to his medical station. Some had been shot; others had been run over, Staff Sgt. Schupska said.
A small Iraqi with a gunshot wound in his arm stepped out of an ambulance and reached for the staff sergeant.
"The first thing that popped into my mind was someone was worried about this guy," Staff Sgt. Schupska said. "To actually meet the enemy, it changed my life. He's human, you know."
Although the Fort Stewart testing won't be anywhere near Staff Sgt. Schupska's combat experience, he said he believes the explosions, moaning victims and harsh instructors prepare soldiers for the real thing.
"It has the same sense of urgency," he said.
Sgt. Bryant, Lt. Haney and two other soldiers felt the stress Tuesday morning as they worked through the obstacle stretcher course. They carried a wounded soldier on a stretcher through mud pits, over walls and under barbed wire while machine gunfire, explosions and smoke surrounded the path.
"It took teamwork, motivation," Sgt. Bryant said between breaths after finishing the course in 23 minutes.