ADAZI, Latvia (April 30, 2014)-- Approximately 600 paratroopers, from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, deployed for training rotations in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, April 23-28, to enhance ongoing military-to-military relationships and demonstrate assurance of America's commitment to its NATO allies.
These exercises in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are part of a series of expanded American land force training activities with European partners that are scheduled to take place in the next few months and beyond.
The 173rd Airborne, based in Vicenza, Italy, is the Army Contingency Response Force in Europe, capable of projecting forces to conduct the full of range of military operations across the United State European, Central and Africa Commands areas of responsibility.
The first group of paratroopers, from Company C, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, landed at Swidwin Air Base in Poland, April 23, to train with the Polish army's 6th Airborne Brigade, which is a sister brigade of the 173rd.
"This is a great day for NATO, a great day for the USA and a great day for Poland," said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Longo, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Europe and commander, U.S. Army NATO. "Poland joined NATO in 1999, and since that time has been a major contributor. When NATO needed Poland, Poland was there. Poland was capable, Poland was committed and Poland had the will to live up to its obligations to the alliance. The beginning of this training exercise demonstrates that the NATO alliance is committed to Poland as well."
The two brigades have a close relationship built over a series of training events, including airborne operations in Poland and Germany.
These American paratroopers "with their Polish brothers from the 6th Airborne Brigade, are a tangible manifestation of the U.S. commitment to this region," said Longo. "They have come to train with their elite airborne comrades, to learn from each other and to continue their on-going persistent partnership that has been ongoing."
At the ceremony, the assembled troops were reminded of what it means to be brothers in arms when the Polish minister of national defense, Tomasz Siemoniak, spoke of an ultimate sacrifice that an American Soldier made for his Polish comrade.
The relationship between the Poland and America is one thing Polish forces value, said Siemoniak.
"We have served together, and we have shed blood together and Iraq and Afghanistan. [Staff Sgt.] Michael Ollis fell last year in Ghazni [Afghanistan], saving the life of his Polish colleague. Polish soldiers shall not forget him."
Ollis, a Soldier with the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), died protecting a Polish soldier from a suicide bomber during an attack on Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Aug. 28, 2013, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Ollis was posthumously decorated for his valor by the Polish state with the Polish Army Medal in gold, the highest award a non-Polish service member can receive.
April 24, paratroopers from Company A, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, arrived in Riga, Latvia, to conduct small unit and leader training with members of the Latvian Land Forces Infantry Brigade.
"This will be intensive training that will promote cooperation and increase the interoperability of our two forces, as well as enhance overall security in the region," said Lt. Gen. Raimonds Graube, Latvian chief of defense.
At the ceremony, attended by Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujumaas, as well as other senior officials and the American ambassador, Straujumaas said that by hosting paratroopers from the 173rd, "one of the best American military's best," Latvia feels NATO's solidarity and how important Latvia is to the other partners of the alliance.
Soldiers from both countries said that they're looking forward to the combined training.
"It's good that the Americans are here. It's a good experience working here together," said Latvian army Sgt. Morris Efners, a soldier with the 1st Infantry Battalion.
After two days of training together, an American Soldier gave his perspective.
"It's going really, really well working shoulder to shoulder with the Latvians," said Sgt. Simon Mendoza, a paratrooper with Company A. "I'm here to train my Soldiers, train their soldiers, train together and improve our relations."
On April 26, paratroopers from Company B, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), arrived at Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania, to begin training with the Lithuanian army's "Iron Wolf" Mechanized Infantry Brigade at the Rukla training area.
"American and Lithuanian Soldiers have stood in formation before," said Lt. Gen. Arvydas Pocius, the Lithuanian chief of defense. "They've served in the Balkans, Iraq and now are working shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan."
Americans in the audience echoed the strong partnership bonds that have been forged through deployments with multinational partners.
"These exercises send a strong message: We stay true to our word with our NATO allies," said 2nd Lt. Joseph Dunfy," a paratrooper also with Company B. "Just like they were there for us in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq, we're here for them."
During the ceremony, Pocius recalled a connection between the Lithuanian people and the U.S. Army: The U.S. Army's Sabalauski Air Assault School is named after Lithuanian-born, master-rated jumpmaster U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Walter J. Sabalauski, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
"This is an opportunity to reassure Lithuania that we are here to be committed to them and that we'll stand next to [our partners] no matter what," said Sgt. Jonathan Grant, a paratrooper with Company B. "This is a great experience for us, to see the country and train with these awesome people."
The two brigades have trained together, most recently in NATO Exercise Steadfast Jazz in November in Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland.
The fourth groups of paratroopers to arrive in the Baltic region were from the brigade's Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, who arrived at Amari Air Field, Estonia, Monday.
"Have you heard of the 173rd Airborne Brigade?" asked Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves during his opening remarks. "With boots on the ground and dirt on our face, we'll defend your freedom anytime, anyplace' -- [it] is the song of the 173rd Airborne Brigade."
"Here in Estonia we like that song," Ilves continued. "The transatlantic link is not something that Estonians take for granted. Rather, we see it as a vital element of security in an unsecure world. This is why we so appreciate allied boots on the ground here. Estonia is a country that has always appreciated and liked the United States of America."
The four companies from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) are scheduled to remain in the region until the end of the year, completing bilateral training with the brigade's partners and participating in multinational European land force exercise like Saber Strike, later this summer.
These training rotations "are an obvious manifestation of the commitment between our countries and this alliance," said Longo. "It's all about commitment. It's all about capability, and it's all about trust. This is the beginning, not the end [of our military relationships] - so let's get started."