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American and Romanian soldiers march in formation during physical fitness training at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania on Wednesday. American and Romanian troops have fully integated their units during this summer's Proof of Principle Exercise in Romania and Bulgaria. They eat, sleep and train together.
American and Romanian soldiers march in formation during physical fitness training at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania on Wednesday. American and Romanian troops have fully integated their units during this summer's Proof of Principle Exercise in Romania and Bulgaria. They eat, sleep and train together. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)
American and Romanian soldiers march in formation during physical fitness training at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania on Wednesday. American and Romanian troops have fully integated their units during this summer's Proof of Principle Exercise in Romania and Bulgaria. They eat, sleep and train together.
American and Romanian soldiers march in formation during physical fitness training at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania on Wednesday. American and Romanian troops have fully integated their units during this summer's Proof of Principle Exercise in Romania and Bulgaria. They eat, sleep and train together. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)
American and Romanian soldiers perform their physical fitness training together at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania on Wednesday.
American and Romanian soldiers perform their physical fitness training together at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania on Wednesday. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)
Romanian Army Sgt. Nicolae Hagianu, left, and U.S. Army Sgt. Phillip King sprint down a road at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania as part of physical fitness training on Wednesday.
Romanian Army Sgt. Nicolae Hagianu, left, and U.S. Army Sgt. Phillip King sprint down a road at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania as part of physical fitness training on Wednesday. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

European edition, Thursday, August 23, 2007

MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania — Army Sgt. 1st Class John Black admits he could not have found Romania on a map a few weeks ago.

But in the next two months, he will get a lesson on the former Soviet bloc nation that reaches beyond mere geography.

Black and other American soldiers are training with Romanian infantry soldiers as part of an exercise this summer that is serving as a prelude to rotating U.S. troops to eastern Europe. Both countries want to build their military ties, and that goal goes beyond the colonels and officers to the ground- pounding Army grunts not too far removed from boot camp.

During the Proof of Principle Exercise, Romanian and U.S. troops are integrated, not segregated as they often are during multinational training events. They are sleeping, eating and training together every day until the closing ceremony in late October.

The exercise involves becoming accustomed to cultural and organizational differences, but it is too early to gauge whether there will be any clashes between iPod-toting U.S. soldiers and infantrymen from one of Europe’s poorest nations.

So far, Black said, he thinks they are more alike than different.

“I didn’t come with any kind of perception,” he said. “Really I didn’t know Romania existed until they said, ‘Hey, you’re going there.’ ”

He is similar to many of the youngest soldiers. Few know much about the past or present of Romania, a former communist country that joined NATO two years ago. While some Romanians had met Americans before and might know a little more about them now, their perceptions of Americans are created mostly by hip-hop music and Hollywood movies.

The bulk of the nearly 900 American troops taking part in the exercise come from the Idar-Oberstein, Germany-based 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery. The Romanian soldiers are from the 341st Infantry Battalion.

Together, they make up a combined task force called Deep Steel.

Romanian Lance Cpl. Maral Neagu has worked with Americans before. He provided security for U.S. servicemembers who passed through Romania during the early part of the Iraq war.

“The difference [between the two militaries] is really in money, because their country is richer than ours,” he said. “But there are similarities. We also have well-prepared men. My colleagues have been in different operations — Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan — just like our U.S. colleagues.”

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Tom Matsel, the task force commander, said it is too early in the exercise to fall into any cultural gaps.

“Soldiers are soldiers,” Matsel said. “Although we’re different armies, we’re really not all that different.”

Troops spent much of this week trying to get to know each other, since training at the area ranges and in Bulgaria won’t begin until early next week. They played soccer and softball on Monday and conduct physical fitness training every morning.

But some cultural exchanges weren’t forced or scheduled.

This past weekend, a group of soldiers went to a local club, where a wedding reception was being held. They remained segregated for most of the evening but that changed.

As part of the Romanian tradition, guests pay to dance with the bride. One American soldier got up his gumption, approached the dancing circle with 10 euros in his hand and was allowed to dance with the bride. By the end of the night, the wedding party and the U.S. soldiers partied together.

“It was the icebreaker,” Matsel said. “It was American and Romanians together just having a good time.”

Military commanders from both countries are hoping that something similar can happen on the training ranges and eventually shift to the battlefield in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There are some cultural differences, but it’s not something we can’t overcome because we have a common bond,” Matsel said.

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