Salvatore Ambrosino | April 20, 2022 4:21 p.m.
Shannon Allen remembers watching her fellow cadets swim in the water a year ago.
“I had watched the event last year,” Allen said. Now, after a year of intense training, it was her year to compete.
She wakes around 3:45 a.m. and slips into her camouflage combat uniform. It weighs up to 15 pounds when wet.
“I was able to see each event a year prior to competing,” Allen said. “Last year one of my best friends was preparing to compete and I would tag along for swim lessons knowing I was going to be doing the GAFPB the following year.”
Over 100 students from universities across Florida arrived in Lakeland on March 16 to compete for the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge. It’s one of the few approved foreign awards valid within the United States military. It’s one of the most sought after. A badge that if earned, serves as a “connection” between a United States service member and allied Germans.
Allen double checked her attire and then left for the pool, vaguely anxious, but excited, she says.
“This was the part where my stomach started to drop,” Allen describes her descent onto the pool deck, where she arrived with the other cadets. It was around 4:45 a.m.—still dark.
She dives into the pool, her ACU absorbing the shock of the water.
“I decided to dive in so I got that initial shock and just started moving,” Allen said. “You have to be able to calm yourself.”
That was the main thing Allen thought about while swimming, she says.
Cadets must dive into the pool, swim 100 meters, undress while afloat at the end of it and throw their heavy army jacket and pants onto the deck at the deep end of a 16 foot pool—a challenge as physically taxing as it is mentally daunting.
The cadre stands over the pool, encouraging the swimmers and timing their laps. They have four minutes to complete the 100 meter swim. A commanding officer from the German army also stands over the pool, supervising the kickoff and the following two days of competition.
“It’s one of the few international badges that the U.S. military allows them to wear,” Barth said. “You need a German. That’s why I’m here.”
Barth is stationed at MacDill Airforce Base in Tampa. His presence at the event is necessary for both the validation of the games and the award ceremony at the end, where he personally pins the badges—gold, silver or bronze–to each cadet.
“What inspires me is, really, how passionate they are,” Barth said. “We had cadets who tried 3 times to do the swim test and on the final attempt, they passed. They tried and tried and tried.”
Some of the cadets strided the water, swimming cleanly from beginning to end. Those who did not make it to the finish line in time were encouraged to finish their laps. Some doggy paddled, thrashing in the water to the end, long after the four minute mark had passed. One cadet began throwing up after exiting the pool.
Another began to drown. Rowan Marshall, the lifeguard, blew her whistle and dove from her post cradling a lifesaver for the cadet.
Another cadet, Dante Mendez, a tough lacrosse athlete and sophomore cadet didn’t earn his badge because he couldn’t complete his swim within 4 minutes.
“Water-logged clothing weighed me down,” Mendez said.
Next year, he says he’ll take swimming more seriously.
“Very tiring,” said Jock Botos, a cadet from Florida Institute of Technology who passed the swim. “The first two laps are good and then you get to the third and fourth lap and it’s all weighing down on you. It’s so much heavier with the uniform on.”
Many panic at the end, when they must strip out of their uniform while swimming and throw their jacket and pants fully onto the pool deck in order to pass the finish line. If the heavy clothing doesn’t entirely make it past the edge of the pool, the cadre throws it back to the cadet.
“At the end, you don’t get a break,” Botos said. “You have to take everything off, so you hyperventilate.”
That they’re not going to let you drown, he says, is what kept him calm.
“Like I said before …as soon as you start to freak out it’s almost over for you,” Allen said. “Everyone could be giving you advice while you’re in the pool, but you’re in there alone and you’re the only one that can make decisions. Very big mental game, for sure.”
Allen swam her laps in time. As she exited the pool, she felt relieved, happy. She wouldn’t have to compete in this event again, as long as the next two days of her training went well.
The pool deck emptied as the last of the over 100 cadets tried their swimming skills. They’re given fresh ACUs. Some chattered about the next event in groups of cadets. Others rested on the ground, their heads on their backpacks.
It wasn’t until sunrise a few hours later that the buses transited ROTC students to the shooting range on the Polk County Sheriff’s Office’s training headquarters. On the bus, the cadre played music.
“Wasn’t much talking cause we were all just getting up from our naps,” Allen said.
Despite having grown up shooting with her father and her brothers, Allen was extremely nervous. Cadets had 5 rounds. To win gold, a cadet must hit 3 targets at 25 meters and the additional 2 rounds must be placed in any of the 3 targets. Any worse causes Allen’s chances of winning a golden badge to sink—a golden badge indicates the highest level of the GAFPB.
“I grew up shooting, but the amount of pressure that was on the range made it even that much nerve-racking,” Allen said. “The range determined what metal you would be going for. So even if you got gold on every event following the range, if you only got silver or bronze on the range, you could only get silver or bronze [overall].”
Cadets arrived at the range. The sunny Florida wilderness could’ve passed as the setting for a morning hike, if not for the consistent rifle fire from police training nearby.
They formed a line entering the range. Two of them sorted a stream of bullets into stacks of pistol magazines 5 rounds each. They were instructed on the proper shooting stance—balanced, shoulders forward. 12 at a time, cadets lined the range and took aim at wooden targets. Rounds popped from their pistols asynchronously.
“Our group was one of the last to go,” Allen said. “When I shot my five rounds, I wasn’t confident whatsoever, unfortunately.”
Allen hit none of the targets—a complete failure she says. Fortunately, this was counted as a warmup for Allen.
“This was very defeating for me,” Allen said.
She was given instruction by LTC John Denney MSG Orisek and then practiced her form with a dummy pistol.
“Both LTC and MSG watched our form prior to our live fires and gave us feedback. This calmed me down and better prepared me for the qualification round,” Allen said.
Allen returned to the back of the line and eventually would reach the front again. She took aim, this time hitting all 5 shots.
“If you want to be a better shooter, you have to shoot,” Barth said.
As Day 1 came to an end, cadets returned to the school bus by bus. Those from other schools stayed at hotels nearby. At FSC, cadets returned to their classes after a morning of brutal physical and mental tests. At the end of the day, cadets were told which grade of the GAFPB they could compete for. Allen had qualified for gold. She knew that as long as she completed the ruck march the next day, a 7.6 mile run around Lake Hollingsworth, under two hours, gold was her’s.
Early the next morning, cadets performed suicide sprints and held their heads over the bar in a pull-up for as long as they could.
She ran with the one other cadet from FSC who qualified for gold, Matt Crescenzo. They finished this run together in an hour and forty-five minute’s time.
The next day, all cadets met in the Jenkins Field House to receive the badges they’d earned.
The metals sat on a plate draped with red velvet. Each cadet had the award pinned to them by Barth.
“Having that at the early stages of their career—that gives them a boost,” Barth said.
At the ceremony, Matt Crescenzo and Shannon Allen were among the first to receive the gold proficiency badge—and among the few.