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Capt. Eero Kinnunen, 38, is one of four Estonian observer controllers participating in the Iron Storm exercise in Hohenfels, Germany.

Capt. Eero Kinnunen, 38, is one of four Estonian observer controllers participating in the Iron Storm exercise in Hohenfels, Germany. (Seth Robson / S&S)

Capt. Eero Kinnunen, 38, is one of four Estonian observer controllers participating in the Iron Storm exercise in Hohenfels, Germany.

Capt. Eero Kinnunen, 38, is one of four Estonian observer controllers participating in the Iron Storm exercise in Hohenfels, Germany. (Seth Robson / S&S)

Estonian troops are about to get a nasty surprise from an “insurgent” at Hohenfels on Thursday during a mock raid.

Estonian troops are about to get a nasty surprise from an “insurgent” at Hohenfels on Thursday during a mock raid. (Seth Robson / S&S)

An Estonian soldier enjoys his pipe after a raid on the mock town of Ubensdorf at Hohenfels, Germany, on Thursday.

An Estonian soldier enjoys his pipe after a raid on the mock town of Ubensdorf at Hohenfels, Germany, on Thursday. (Seth Robson / S&S)

Estonian observer controllers equipped with “God guns” watch the action at Hohenfels, Germany, on Thursday.

Estonian observer controllers equipped with “God guns” watch the action at Hohenfels, Germany, on Thursday. (Seth Robson / S&S)

Estonian and US troops mingle after a raid on the mock town of Ubensdorf at Hohenfels, Germany, on Thursday.

Estonian and US troops mingle after a raid on the mock town of Ubensdorf at Hohenfels, Germany, on Thursday. (Seth Robson / S&S)

HOHENFELS, Germany – Foreigners wielding “God guns” are becoming a familiar sight here as the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) moves to train coalition partners as observer controllers.

Observer controllers, or OCs, are the officials who run exercises inside “The Box” training area at Hohenfels. Their signature is the God gun, which can set off the siren on a MILES laser harness if the OC determines that a soldier has been “killed” during an exercise.

JMRC Operations Group Commander Col. Tom Vandal said four Estonian OCs are participating in the 1st Armored Division’s Iron Storm exercise, which began Saturday and involves a platoon of Estonian infantry bound for Iraq.

The first foreign OC to work at Hohenfels was a Polish soldier who participated in an exercise in March. The foreign soldiers take the same two-week course that U.S. troops do before going to Hohenfels, officials said.

American OC, Capt. Jason Marneault, 33, of St. Petersberg, Fla., said he was impressed by the Estonians’ English language skills and military proficiency.

“One of them used to be in the Red Army (as a conscript when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union) and served in Afghanistan in the 1980s,” he added.

The exercise was a chance for another American OC, Maj. Brad Laauwe, 33, of Katy, Texas, to meet up with Estonian Capt. Eero Kinnunen, 38, who he served with in Iraq.

The pair met in 2003 in Baghdad when Laauwe was a company commander with 2nd Battalion, 70th Armored Regiment, he said.

“Eero’s platoon had a sector that was next to mine. They were doing dismounted patrols through Abu Ghraib,” Laauwe recalled.

In Iraq the pair talked about the differences between their militaries, he said.

“The Estonian Army is mostly conscripts. They go through intense training. They only get conscripts for eight to 12 months and yet they are still committed to all these overseas missions,” he said.

The Estonian army, 6,000 strong out of a population of 1.4 million, has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo in recent years.

Laauwe said he learned a little about Estonia through his conversations with Kinnunen.

“You think eastern Europe is behind the times, but Estonia is definitely not. They are very forward-thinking and their economy is booming,” he said, adding that he plans to travel to Estonia this summer.

Kinnunen, who has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, recommended Estonia’s 900-year-old capital, Tallinn, as a holiday destination and a traditional Estonian meal of pork, salted cabbage and potatoes.

Estonians enjoy working with U.S. troops, he said.

“We have a small army. You have a large army. There are much more possibilities,” he said. “This training facility is much better than training at home.”

author picture
Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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