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Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade participate in exercise Steel Blizzard, near Usseaux, Italy, in February 2022. During the Italian army-hosted multinational mountain and Arctic warfare training event, paratroopers learn different methods of operating in mountainous and arctic conditions.

Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade participate in exercise Steel Blizzard, near Usseaux, Italy, in February 2022. During the Italian army-hosted multinational mountain and Arctic warfare training event, paratroopers learn different methods of operating in mountainous and arctic conditions. (Facebook/U.S. Army Europe and Africa)

VICENZA, Italy — Not all paratroopers with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment deployed to Latvia last month in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Some went skiing in Italy’s rugged Dolomite Mountains. But it was no vacation.

Scores of battalion scouts, the most physically fit of an already fit brigade, spent weeks under the tutelage of Italian Alpine, the Italian army's specialist mountain infantry famed for their winter warfare skills.

Alongside Italian and French troops in an exercise called Steel Blizzard, the scouts learned winter combat techniques, such as skiing uphill, shooting on skis and avalanche rescue. They humped across cold, unforgiving terrain for miles, fought simulated battles, then slept in the snow.

"I think it was one of the most beautiful environments I've ever been in," said 1st Lt. Jack Hanley, one of 46 paratroopers who participated in the training, which started in January and concluded Friday.

Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade ski up a slope near Usseaux, Italy, in February. The unit attended training led by the Italian Alpine, the Italian army’s specialist mountain infantry famed for their winter warfare in World War I.

Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade ski up a slope near Usseaux, Italy, in February. The unit attended training led by the Italian Alpine, the Italian army’s specialist mountain infantry famed for their winter warfare in World War I. (Jack Hanley/U.S. Army)

Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade establish a campsite in the Dolomite Mountains during a multiweek exercise in winter warfare techniques led by the Italian army. The training included mountainside war games lasting three days that used Ospreys and Italian helicopters to insert troops 8,200 feet high on a mountain.

Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade establish a campsite in the Dolomite Mountains during a multiweek exercise in winter warfare techniques led by the Italian army. The training included mountainside war games lasting three days that used Ospreys and Italian helicopters to insert troops 8,200 feet high on a mountain. (Jack Hanley/U.S. Army)

"It was a great opportunity for the guys to be out on the mountain, learning skills that translate to their jobs, conquering difficult slopes as well as climbing mountains on skis," Hanley said in a recent phone interview.

Only six of the scouts had ever previously been on skis, Hanley said.

"But by the end of the third week, 99% of us qualified for the advanced Italian ski course," he said.

In recreational terms, that means they could successfully navigate a black diamond run.

As the training progressed, the recreational aspect gave way to hard work. On one overnight movement, they skied for 8 miles cross-country, and, with gripping "skins" on the bottom of their hybrid skis, up the mountain.

They slept in tents that night. On another night, they slept "tactically" a few hours at a time outside without tents, Hanley said, adding that the temperature got down to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Steel Blizzard is conducted in the Dolomites and a forest west of Turin every few years. Brigade troops train with Italian and French service members under NATO auspices.

Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade train with the Italian army in the Dolomite Mountains during a multiweek exercise in winter warfare techniques near Usseaux, Italy, in February.

Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade train with the Italian army in the Dolomite Mountains during a multiweek exercise in winter warfare techniques near Usseaux, Italy, in February. (Jack Hanley/U.S. Army)

"It turns into essentially a war game," said the 173rd’s Staff Sgt. John Yountz.

The training is all in English, even when Italians are speaking to each other, Hanley said.

Steel Blizzard’s concluding three days grew more intense. Ospreys and Italian helicopters inserted the troops on a mountain at an elevation of 8,200 feet.

"The first day, we moved approximately 9 kilometers (5.4 miles) on foot with snowshoes uphill" in waist-deep snow, Hanley said.

The troops did reconnaissance on opposition force Stinger systems, electronic warfare assets and artillery. They also attacked with air support provided by an Italian Eurofighter Typhoon jet.

Winter warfare was waged on a significant scale in World War I and World War II, and training for it continued during the Cold War as preparation for a potential conflict with the Soviet Union.

In addition to U.S. troops training with NATO allies, the Fort Drum, N.Y.-based 10th Mountain Division and Alaska-based units continue to specialize in mountain warfare.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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