Big guns, better chow for US soldiers on Russia deterrence mission
PABRADE, Lithuania — At a camp nestled in Lithuania’s remote, rainy forests, Staff Sgt. Erick Martinez and his platoon of artillerymen settled into a cycle: maintain the howitzers, work out and chow down on palate-pleasing international field rations as they wait for the order to fire.
Martinez and his platoon are among 500 173rd Airborne Brigade soldiers that swooped into the Baltics this month on a mission to deter Russian aggression.
They have joined war games with local troops and new NATO battle groups deployed to the broader region — a buildup that collectively represents the alliance’s largest reinforcement of its eastern flank since the end of the Cold War.
“The hours are long, but the morale is high,” Martinez said from inside a camouflaged artillery enclosure within the mossy woods.
“We keep ourselves busy each day, taking care of our area and doing what we have to do. But then we get the order to fire, and we’ve been firing a lot. We’re loving it.”
The 173rd’s 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment is leading the U.S. effort in Bayonet Shield, which will culminate in the weeks ahead with a massive international live-fire drill.
In places like Pabrade, the brigade’s soldiers are working side-by-side with international forces as they train with high-powered weaponry. The crackle of .50-caliber shots repeatedly echoes from the target range into the woods where soldiers take shelter in tents.
In between the drills, one of the rewards for the soldiers in the Baltics is a break from American MRE monotony.
In Latvia, soldiers get traditional kebabs and meat dishes, while those camped out in Lithuania’s forests receive Canadian MREs, complete with a longer-lasting version of poutine, the Quebec specialty of mushy fries bathed in gravy and cheese.
Members of a multinational NATO battalion handle much of the cooking and have had the most interaction with U.S. troops.
Soldiers have relished the chance to mingle with their counterparts.
“We’re working with people from all over the world. We’re sleeping on mattresses. We have tents over our heads and we have controlled heating,” said Capt. Thomas Huens, 1-91 Headquarters troop commander. “Life’s about as good as it can get in the Army.”
For Army senior leaders, placing paratroopers in the Baltics was part of a plan to bolster allied presence in the region as Russia conducted its own large-scale war games just across the dividing line between Russia and NATO turf.
But for most of the soldiers on the ground, the geopolitics are an afterthought as they go about their daily tasks.
“Some days our guys are starting training at (9 a.m.), and working until (2 a.m.) the next morning. They don’t have time to focus on anything else,” said Lt. Col. Hugh Jones, commander of the 173rd’s 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment (Airborne). “We’re focusing on training and doing what we do. We are making the absolute most of our time here.”
The training is part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, the United States’ commitment to deter aggression in Europe in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
Soldiers are doing everything from target practice with MK-19 automatic grenade launchers atop Humvees in Lithuania, to aerial assaults with Slovenian soldiers focusing on chemical, nuclear and other threats in Latvia.
“We’ve shot everything we have here,” said Sgt. Christopher Hennessy, listing the various calibers of machine guns, missiles and mortars the soldiers used during the training. “We’ve got to show soldiers from other countries our weapon systems, and check out what they use in their army. It’s been a broadening experience.”
Baltic civilians have been supportive of the effort, going as far as cheering for U.S. soldiers marching in the Lithuanian Founders Day Parade.
“They (Lithuanians) are extremely appreciative of us being here,” said 1st Lt. Parker Jordan, 1-91’s Troop A executive officer. “This is a good opportunity for us to work together.”
The exercise will culminate in a live-fire exercise in October, where U.S. soldiers will assault an objective alongside Polish tanks, Spanish sappers and infantry from several other countries.