Fort Stewart soldiers deploying to Europe will draw heavy weapons from Army’s stockpile on the Continent for first time
Stars and Stripes March 2, 2022
HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, Ga. — The Fort Stewart soldiers ordered last week to Europe on a short-notice deployment to deter Russian aggression will become the first unit to draw heavy armored weapons — including tanks — from the Army’s prepositioned stocks on the Continent, commanders said Wednesday.
Roughly 3,800 soldiers of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division crammed months of training into mere weeks last month after they were notified they could be called on short notice to Europe as Russia amassed an invasion force around Ukraine, Army Maj. Gen. Charles Costanza said, as dozens of soldiers boarded planes bound for Germany.
After Russia launched its attack on Ukraine last week, the entire brigade was ordered to Hohenfels, Germany, where it will gather its weapons and vehicles and train before potentially deploying to bolster NATO defenses on its eastern flank.
“These soldiers were all out shooting gunnery just two weeks ago,” Costanza, the 3rd ID commander, told reporters at Hunter Army Airfield, an extension of Fort Stewart in Savannah, Ga. “They were out and we had a little bit of indication that potentially they would deploy so we started preparing a little bit early. But they literally came right off the gunnery range about a week ago, packed containers, and then started getting on airplanes.”
On Wednesday, at least two flights carried more than 200 troops with the brigade's 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment from the airfield, where soldiers anxiously awaited their flights in the installation's deployment terminal. Some sent last-minute texts, checked their rifles or joked around before marching onto a Germany-bound plane.
The deployment is a first for the Army — a short-notice of a heavy armored brigade combat team that uses mechanized vehicles such as tanks, self-propelled artillery, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. It comes just seven months after the brigade returned from a nine-month deployment to South Korea.
Soldiers said the two deployments are incomparable. Units had months to prepare and train for their mission to Korea, where they spent much of the deployment training alongside South Korean forces. There was no way to prepare specifically for this mission, said Capt. Troy Makulec, a company commander with 1st Brigade’s 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment.
“We took our entire training glide path that we had templated for the next three or four months and we essentially crammed it down into 20 days for the whole brigade,” he said. “A lot of people put in a ton of hours planning and preparing for that and executing it.”
The soldiers took right to it, especially considering the circumstances — not knowing if they would soon be boarding planes for Europe, Makulec said.
“I mean, they went out there and they nailed it,” he said.
The bulk of the unit has never deployed into combat before, said the 29-year-old captain, who in his eight years in the service was never deployed into a war zone. Though President Joe Biden has said repeatedly that he will not send American service members into Ukraine, Makulec and other soldiers said this deployment feels more like a combat mission than a typical training rotation.
For Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Cooner, a tank platoon sergeant with 15 years of Army experience including combat deployments to Iraq, this mission has a different feel to it than his past deployments — primarily because he didn’t spend months training for a specific mission.
“Our inability to predict all of this caused us to basically focus on the things we could do immediately to get us prepared,” said Cooner, a member of 3-69 Armor that left Hunter on Wednesday. “We did a [training regimen] that would normally take anywhere from 12 to 21 days, and we were able to accomplish all that within five. So those condensed timelines lead to more stress in the short term, but feel like a better training scenario for the mission we may face — whatever that is.”
Cooner, 35, said it was difficult to leave his wife and three school-aged daughters again so shortly after returning from Korea. The short notice actually might have made it simpler on the family, he said.
“You know this isn't a new thing — deploying away from the family,” Cooner said. “Even though there is all the uncertainty of everything around this deployment, honestly, I think, for me, and for my family, it was almost easier because we didn't have a lot of time to like think, you know, we’re leaving in three months, then two months. That countdown. This scenario is almost like ripping off the Band-Aid and being like, OK, well, we're going, that’s it.”
But neither Cooner nor anyone else knows how long the brigade will be in Europe. The unit was ordered to prepare to stay six months, but with the Russian invasion continuing in Ukraine and fears among NATO allies that Russian President Vladimir Putin could turn his forces on a NATO country, Costanza and other officials cautioned 3rd Brigade’s deployment could be extended or shortened.
The Pentagon has already extended a deployment to Europe for the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division, another heavy armored brigade, which was set to return in the coming weeks to Fort Riley, Kan. Meanwhile, the unit scheduled to replace the 1st ID brigade — the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division — will deploy to Europe in the coming weeks. That will give the United States three heavy brigades on the Continent for the first time in decades.
The significance of that much American firepower in Europe was not lost on U.S. soldiers, Costanza said, calling the move “appropriate” considering Russia’s actions.
“Our NATO allies and partners are in a position that we need that much [power] forward” deployed, the general said.
Cooner and Makulec said they had been watching Russia’s attack on Ukraine, though the soldiers are mostly focused on their own roles, for now.
Once in Germany, that means pulling thousands of vehicles and heavy weapons from the pre-set equipment, known as Army Prepositioned Stocks-2. The stocks are meant to field massive amounts of firepower rapidly to American forces in the case of a major conflict in Europe. While the plans, which have never been executed, date back to the Cold War, the equipment is modern gear almost identical to the weapons with which 1st Brigade, 3rd ID has been training at Fort Stewart, Costanza said.
The general said the equipment is in “surprising very, very” good condition and soldiers should easily adjust to their new tanks and vehicles.
“We know there'll be some challenges as we start to shoot the vehicles and everything else,” he said. “Of course, we’re going to find some issues and challenges — but it’s all in a really good shape right now.”
Soldiers have been conducting tabletop exercises and dress rehearsals to prepare to draw their new gear in Germany, officials said.
Using the prepositioned stock for the first time in Europe poses a “really interesting challenge,” Makulec said. However, he expects his soldiers would quickly adapt to any subtle differences in their gear.
“These are the same types of platforms that we have organic to our unit, so there's no big change in training,” the captain said. “It's just a matter of getting to know the individual quirks of your vehicle — just like everyone's car has individual quirks. I think it's going to be a really interesting experience to take those vehicles out and shoot them.”
“I’m excited about this,” the sergeant first class said. “It’s awesome to see this team come together to go and support our allies and, hopefully, deter aggression. Knowing we’re going to have three armored brigade combat teams in Europe — just a huge force — is really cool, especially as a tanker, and it shows our unified strength. I think most of us are pretty excited about that and ready to go.”