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Grateful Lithuanians greet US troops as operation Dragoon Ride gets underway

Pfc. Luis Diaz of Iron Troop, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment talks to two children decked out in U.S. Army helmets during a static display of the unit's Strykers in Panevezys, Lithuania, Monday, March 23, 2015. The soldiers of Iron Troop made a stop in downtown Panevezys during their convoy back to their home base in Vilseck, Germany, as part of the so-called Dragoon Ride, after training in Estonia.

MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 24, 2015

PANEVEZYS, Lithuania — The 81-year-old man who once served as a grunt in the Soviet army limped from Stryker to Stryker to see the armored attack vehicles and the American infantrymen riding inside them.

The man said he came from several towns away to meet the young American soldiers passing through this northern Lithuanian city. He had a simple message to share.

“American soldier is our friend,” said the man, who in broken English offered only his given name, Vytautas.

As troops from the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, began their road march back to their home station in Vilseck, Germany, having completed three months of training in the Baltics and Poland, such scenes are beginning to unfold on a 1,100-mile journey that is taking troops through eastern Europe towns big and small. With Apache helicopters flying overhead providing surveillance support for the convoying troops, the march is a spectacle in towns unaccustomed to U.S. forces.

The operation, known as Dragoon Ride, is a U.S. Army Europe effort to test and challenge the ability of 2nd Cavalry troops to conduct a long and complex movement, with troops rambling along small country roads and major highways. Much of the focus is on the logistics of such an operation, pushing Strykers to their limit as mechanics work around the clock to ensure the heavy vehicles are up to the job.

“This is part of the Army and the NATO alliance being adaptive,” said USAREUR’s commander, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who met with troops on the road Monday and joined the convoy headed for the Polish border. “This is about re-establishing that culture of readiness.”

At the same time, the troops are traveling by road rather than rail to send a message, both to allies and would-be aggressors that the U.S. stands with its allies, Hodges said.

To reassure countries on Russia’s western periphery, the U.S. and other NATO allies have been training continuously in the Baltics and Poland since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine last year.

But while much of the effort has focused on training to bolster the capabilities of allies, the mission’s other intent — reassuring allies rattled by Russian aggression in Ukraine — can be harder to measure.

Troops say they see the evidence of reassurance as they convoy down the road, making stops along the way where they mingle with the locals.

“The older people start getting emotional. I had one lady came up to me crying,” Spc. John Zagozdon, 25, with 3rd Squadron’s Iron Troop, said on Monday after three days on the road. “They were all really grateful.”

On Sunday, troops with 3rd Squadron’s Lightning Troop had a similar encounter as they passed through the capital of Vilnius en route to the city of Alytus for the night. Some 400 Lithuanians came out to meet troops in a mall parking lot.

“People might hear about training happening someplace, but it makes a difference when you see U.S. soldiers parked in your parking lot,” said Capt. Jon Challgren, an intelligence officer.

As Lightning Troop departed on Monday, bound for the Polish border, Lithuanians again lined the streets and popped out of windows to wave farewell. One old man on the side of the road, hands clasped together in an expression of gratitude, gave the passing convoy a thumbs up.

For troops like Maj. Dave Preston, an operations officer with past deployments in hostile places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the reaction from the locals offered a boost.

“I love this country,” Preston shouted from the hatch.

For younger soldiers, the mission in the Baltics was their first overseas deployment adventure. And it hasn’t been without its challenges, one of which has been the freezing temperatures.

“We try to just think happy thoughts,” said 2nd Lt. Lloyd Abigania, whose job is to maintain a steady presence in the hatch, getting blasted with frigid air as he scans the road.

“You try to stay warm any way you can,” said Spc. Bogdan Tkachuk, who sat in the gunner hatch next to Abigania.

For Tkachuk, who is of Ukrainian descent and still has family in the country, the mission to reassure allies in the Baltics strikes close to home.

“I never imagined being here in this way,” he said. “What we’re doing here sends a message, that we’re here to bring security and that we have our allies’ back.”

As the troops prepare to convoy through Poland, and in some cases through the Czech Republic, before reaching Vilseck, it remains to be seen whether they will encounter only warm welcomes.

As they enter countries farther removed from Russia, the angst over Moscow’s intentions may not be as intense, some troops said.

In the Czech Republic, there are reports of planned protests as the troops head into the country.

However, in downtown Panevezys on Tuesday, there appeared to be only grateful allies. Older residents, with strong memories of the Soviet occupation, mixed with young students, struck by the demonstration of American military power.

“It’s unusual to see, but it’s really cool,” said Viktorija Maciulyte, an 18-year-old student, who spent a year abroad in the U.S. “I’ve read about the former times. For me, what’s happening now is a little scary. I think it (the American presence) makes people feel safer.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

Strykers of Lightning Troop, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment convoy from Alytus, Lithuania, to the Polish border, Monday, March 23, 2015. They will continue their so-called Dragoon Ride through Poland and the Czech Republic to their home base at Vilseck, Germany, following training in Lithuania.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

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