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A Patriot missile bursts out of its launcher at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. U.S. soldiers from the 10th Army Air and Missile Command are training with their German counterparts at NAMFI.

A Patriot missile bursts out of its launcher at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. U.S. soldiers from the 10th Army Air and Missile Command are training with their German counterparts at NAMFI. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Patriot missile bursts out of its launcher at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. U.S. soldiers from the 10th Army Air and Missile Command are training with their German counterparts at NAMFI.

A Patriot missile bursts out of its launcher at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. U.S. soldiers from the 10th Army Air and Missile Command are training with their German counterparts at NAMFI. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Patriot missile streaks into the air above another launcher at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. U.S.  soldiers from the 10th Army Air and Missile Command participated in the training with their German counterparts.

A Patriot missile streaks into the air above another launcher at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. U.S. soldiers from the 10th Army Air and Missile Command participated in the training with their German counterparts. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Patriot missile heads for a target at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.

A Patriot missile heads for a target at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Patriot missile flies through the Cretan sky at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.

A Patriot missile flies through the Cretan sky at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Patriot missile intercepts a target at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. German and U.S. soldiers got the chance to fire the missiles during the training.

Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes

A Patriot missile intercepts a target at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. German and U.S. soldiers got the chance to fire the missiles during the training. Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Patriot missile streaks through the sky after being fired by a German air force battery at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. American soldiers from the 10th Army Air and Missile Command are training with their German counterparts at NAMFI.

A Patriot missile streaks through the sky after being fired by a German air force battery at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. American soldiers from the 10th Army Air and Missile Command are training with their German counterparts at NAMFI. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Patriot missile shoots above another launcher after being fired by a SAM Wing 1 battery of the German air force at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015.

A Patriot missile shoots above another launcher after being fired by a SAM Wing 1 battery of the German air force at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Spc. Christopher Duval talks about firing a Patriot missile for the first time at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. American soldiers are training with their German air force counterparts.

Spc. Christopher Duval talks about firing a Patriot missile for the first time at the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. American soldiers are training with their German air force counterparts. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

CHANIA, Greece — U.S. Army Spc. Christopher Duval has spent the past two years with his finger on the button, waiting for the chance to push.

On Thursday, he finally got that chance, firing a Patriot missile high over the Mediterranean Sea during a rare live-fire drill aimed at testing the skills of U.S. and German Patriot crews.

“You can feel it; the van shakes,” said Duval, a tactical control assistant with the 5th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery, out of Fort Bliss, Texas. “It is breathtaking.”

Operation Rapid Arrow, held on the Greek Island of Crete, ended Thursday with smoke, fire and a series of jarring bangs. U.S. and German troops launched about 30 missiles.

For U.S. air defense soldiers, the chance to fire one of the Army’s multimillion-dollar Patriot missiles is a rare privilege and one that can elude even the most experienced of Patriot gunners for a whole career.

For those who sit inside the three-man van, known as an “engagement control station,” endless hours are spent rehearsing and war-gaming. They read high-tech, 3-D-like screens, distinguishing friend from foe, harmless aircraft from ballistic missiles.

Yet for all the hours of practice and simulated fire, there’s always the lingering question: Will the missile really work?

“We train these air battles every day, and I have total confidence in the system,” said Spc. Jacob Maxwell, a tactical control assistant with the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, out of Baumholder, Germany, who took part in his first live fire. “But actually doing it gives you that extra notch of confidence.”

For many of the soldiers, what stands out most about firing a Patriot for the first time is the sound.

“It’s a thump,” said Maxwell.

“You push the button and feel so much power going off,” added Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Retig, a member of the German military’s SAM Wing 1, which was taking part in a NATO Patriot certification.

Patriot is a long-range air defense system capable of intercepting incoming ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and high-flying aircraft. The system, which has been in U.S. service since the 1980s, has been continuously upgraded, and its prime mission today is anti-missile defense.

Rapid Arrow marked the first time since 2008 that the U.S. has fired Patriots at the NATO Missile Firing Installation in Crete, the only site in Europe where the missile can be fired.

U.S. Army leaders say they hope to conduct more regular training at the site, coordinating with allies such as the Netherlands and Germany, which also have advanced Patriot systems.

German military leaders say they see room for more opportunities to train side by side.

“This is the way ahead,” said German Brig. Gen. Michael Gschossmann, who was on hand to observe the live fire. “To train together, to exercise together, is the foundation for success.”

Sgt. 1st Class Jay Polin, a Patriot master gunner with the ­Germany-based 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, said blending U.S. and German crews was a unique part of the training that gave soldiers a chance to learn new ways of doing their job.

“It’s really about building that cohesion with allies,” Polin said.

During the week of training, Maxwell said, he developed newfound respect for his German counterparts.

One difference among the crews is that the Germans tend to have more schooling before assuming their positions, while the Americans do it more “trial by fire,” Maxwell said.

“They are very efficient in what they do,” said Maxwell. “If we ever have to go to war together, I have complete trust.”

As some of the Americans got their first chance down the training range, launching their Patriots at fast-flying fake missiles, sounds of “ooh” and “aah” erupted in the control room when a puff of smoke plumed in the distance, signaling a hit. Seconds later, the blast of the interception reverberated in a wave of sound.

For the 10th AAMDC’s Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen Burnley, seeing his soldiers fire was a long time coming.

“You train and train every day,” said Burnley, himself watching his first Patriot live fire. “So for these guys to get this chance, that is everything.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com Twitter: @john_vandiver

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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