Troops fix Italian hillside as part of outreach program
Stars and Stripes August 12, 2009
They all volunteered to serve their country. But most soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment probably never envisioned it would involve days of toiling in civilian clothes in the Italian countryside.
That’s exactly what’s happening with more than 300 soldiers from "First Rock" though, thanks to a new community outreach program.
"I think it’s important to establish a little more of a relationship with the communities around Vicenza," said Pfc. Luke Thompson, one of the soldiers from Company A doing just that by clearing a hillside of brush.
Thompson, wielding a weed whacker instead of the military rifle he’ll be toting within a year in Afghanistan, admitted he’s not a landscape architect. But he said he helped out around the house while growing up in Medford, Ore.
"Never anything on this scale, though," he said, glancing at the hillside where he and the rest of 1st Platoon were clearing brush. "I had my doubts when I first saw this."
He wasn’t the only one. Capt. Kevin Ward, the company commander, said he was impressed with his men’s efforts over two days.
"I’m not going to lie. When we first looked at this, I was like, ‘diesel fuel and a lighter,’ " he said with a smile. That didn’t happen, though. Soldiers from the company teamed up with a few Alpini members — Italy’s version of National Guard troops for the mountains — to hack, slash, chop and rake their way across the hillside.
Ward had soldiers from his company working on three projects during a recent visit to the hilly community of Arcugnano, south of Vicenza. Each was managed by a separate platoon. Ward said he’s trying to establish a long-term relationship between his company and Arcugnano, one that will endure in some fashion after the soldiers deploy to Afghanistan and later move on to other assignments around the world.
First Lt. Kevin Smith, the battalion’s point man on the program, said the program aims to achieve several goals.
"All six companies are going to be participating," he said, adding that the soldiers doing so are all volunteers.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s plan to bring additional troops to Vicenza by using the Dal Molin airfield has caused some hard feelings among local residents. Smith acknowledged that showing Italian citizens that Americans are willing to be good neighbors is a large part of the program.
That appeared to be working. Vittorio Zolla, a former mayor who worked alongside soldiers installing a series of steps to provide better access to a local church, had nothing but praise for them.
He said the soldiers were not only good workers, but "civil and well-mannered."
That brought smiles to Smith and Ward, who were listening in. Not that there’s a lot of talking going on between the troops and their Alpini colleagues. Not many Alpinis speak much English. And the troops don’t speak a lot of Italian, though translators have helped some.
Millions of Italians belong to Alpini associations around the country and many of them are retired. They engage in projects similar to those the U.S. troops are taking on, but often face logistical and manpower challenges.
"We have got a lot of other (projects)," Zolla said about his community’s desire to use the American offer of help.
Ward has met with the local mayor to identify a list of community needs. He’s tasked different platoons to take on projects and said they’ve gone about it with military precision and planning. The base supplied most of the tools, the Italians purchased construction materials.
First Lt. Jeff Owen said he was pleased with his 1st Platoon’s attitude, leadership and teamwork, all important qualities they’ll be called on to display when they deploy to Afghanistan this winter.
"Working together in a coordinated project like this always builds teamwork," he said.
His platoon’s efforts `1on the hillside turned up a large glass wine bottle, a metal table and about a dozen soccer balls lost from a nearby field. Ward said they had kicked some of them around during a break in the work. Not that they really needed much more in the way of PT after days on the hillside.