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Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division conduct heavy drop operations at Fort Polk, La., in February 2021. The division's troops are scheduled to jump in Estonia during Swift Response 21, a joint, multinational airborne exercise in Europe involving more than 7,000 paratroopers from 10 NATO nations.
Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division conduct heavy drop operations at Fort Polk, La., in February 2021. The division's troops are scheduled to jump in Estonia during Swift Response 21, a joint, multinational airborne exercise in Europe involving more than 7,000 paratroopers from 10 NATO nations. (Vincent Levelev/U.S. Army)
Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division conduct heavy drop operations at Fort Polk, La., in February 2021. The division's troops are scheduled to jump in Estonia during Swift Response 21, a joint, multinational airborne exercise in Europe involving more than 7,000 paratroopers from 10 NATO nations.
Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division conduct heavy drop operations at Fort Polk, La., in February 2021. The division's troops are scheduled to jump in Estonia during Swift Response 21, a joint, multinational airborne exercise in Europe involving more than 7,000 paratroopers from 10 NATO nations. (Vincent Levelev/U.S. Army)
An 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper gets tested for COVID-19 at Fort Bragg, N.C., May 3, 2021. The testing is in preparation for Swift Response 21, a joint, multinational airborne exercise in Europe involving more than 7,000 paratroopers from 10 NATO nations.
An 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper gets tested for COVID-19 at Fort Bragg, N.C., May 3, 2021. The testing is in preparation for Swift Response 21, a joint, multinational airborne exercise in Europe involving more than 7,000 paratroopers from 10 NATO nations. (Alexander Burnett/U.S. Army)

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This story has been updated.

Before hundreds of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers stand up, hook up and shuffle to the door for an airborne jump over Estonia, they sat down, rolled up their sleeves and got the coronavirus vaccination.

Two battalion-sized task forces of the division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team are scheduled to parachute into the Baltic country this week for Swift Response 2021, part of the U.S. Army-led Defender Europe-21 exercises running through June. They’ve all had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine and are being tested for the virus before departure.

“The last thing we need to do is to send someone overseas that is not vaccinated,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, the division’s commanding general.

This week’s event is the first “really big” exercise for the division since the pandemic began, spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Burns said last week.

Many of the Defender-Europe exercises last year were canceled or cut short because of the virus.

A division headquarters will command and control three separate airborne operations, all scheduled in somewhat rapid succession. Overnight Sunday, U.S. soldiers of the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade will jump into Bulgaria, followed by a jump Monday into Romania, led by Poland’s 6th Airborne Brigade.

Half of the 82nd Airborne contingent is staged in Lithuania and will meet up in the air with the other half, which is flying 11 hours from Fort Bragg on “direct delivery,” Burns said.

The operation was slated for Thursday but delayed by bad weather. If the winds turn unfavorable Friday, they may divert and board helicopters to conduct an air assault instead.

The exercise represents a unique and “very complex maneuver of forces” for the division, America’s quick response force, said Maj. Ben Barnard, who spent the past year planning the drill.

The pandemic adds to the complexity, but “I think we’ve mitigated it fairly well,” said Donahue, who said momentum is building as vaccination spreads throughout the division. “This is a good example of how you can train as we work through this pandemic.”

The 3rd Brigade had faced criticism in February after an apparent soldier sent an anonymous letter to the media complaining about lax coronavirus countermeasures for soldiers who traveled by bus to Fort Polk, La., for a three-week exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center. Though they tested negative and were offered the vaccine before departure, several soldiers tested positive on arrival at the training center.

Ahead of Swift Response, the brigade’s participants and a company of British paratroopers accompanying them were training in “bubbles” as an added countermeasure, said Dr. Jonathan Peterson, a lieutenant colonel and the division surgeon. “We’re going to be on the same flights, military flights, we’re going to be housed in the same areas,” he said.

Estonia and Romania have seen spikes in infection rates in recent months similar to upticks seen around Fort Bragg earlier this year, he said, but the spikes in those countries are trending downward.

“Our best defense is the Pfizer vaccine,” Peterson said. “We’re doing the best we’ve got right now.”

garland.chad@stripes.com Twitter: @chadgarland

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