BELLUNO, Italy - American paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade increased their military mountaineering abilities during a weeklong training event with Italian army soldiers from the Julia Alpine Brigade here March 23 through 27.
"Our last ten years of fighting in the mountainous environment of Afghanistan makes these skills very relevant," said Maj. John W. Merkel, the 173rd's aviation officer and chief of the brigade's military-to-military engagement program. "The Alpini [elite Italian mountain troops] have extensive expertise in mountain warfare - they are highly-trained and we are training with them because they do it so well."
The Alpini from the 125th Mortar Company, Feltre Alpine Battalion, 7th Alpine Regiment conducted a three-part training program for the Americans: classroom training covering snow and avalanche safety, downhill and cross-country skiing, and a final practical exercise consisting of allied company-level assault in the Dolomite Mountains of northeastern Italy.
"This training was just a small taste of mountain warfare," said Italian Maj. Mauro Da Courte, the Feltre operations officer. "Now wherever you go, you'll be prepared in future similar environments; you'll already know the challenges."
After classroom instruction, the American paratroopers were issued military ski equipment and went to the San Pellegrino Pass, high in the Italian Alps, where master ski instructors gave small group and individual lessons in military ski craft.
"The priority for mountain troops is to be able to shoot, move and survive on the mountain - and skiing is one of our skills," said Italian Sgt. Maj. Mario Schiavo, a military ski instructor with the Feltre Bn. "This isn't a course for pleasure, we train soldiers to be able to assault an objective in an mountainous environment."
Some of the American paratroopers didn't need remedial instruction, so they went to train on advanced maneuvers with the Italian troops.
"This was the best day I've had in the Army," said 2nd Lt. Scott Harnden, a fire support officer with Company D, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Abn. Bde. "We do a lot of training that is fun, like going to the range, but training with the alpinis on the slopes was really cool. We also have another way to get to the fight - with skis!"
While not everyone was at Harnden's level, all the Americans progressed from the beginner slope to the intermediate course in the space of one day, impressing their Italian hosts.
"I was really surprised by the Americans - they're very fit and have a great physical training - this allowed them to learn to ski more easily and quickly," said Schiavo. "They learned in one day what takes other people a whole week - they were happy and had no fear."
After the ski intensive and a combined planning session, the combined Soldiers conducted a tactical movement to the base of a nearby mountain to begin the training operation. This exercise required the Americans to use recently learned alpine skills and apply them directly to a mission.
The mission began at dusk at a deserted ski lift below the snow line. As the combined force climbed higher up the mountain, the beating rain turned to snow and the troops moved through thigh-high snow, battling high winds.
"Mountains are great for training, not only physically, but also mentally," said Italian Capt. Karim Bensallah, commander of the 125th and the combined mission commander. "When you have snow on your face, when you are freezing - the only thing that will take you to the top of the mountain is your brain. If you are able to fight in the mountains, you are able to fight anywhere."
"We never get to choose where we go to battle," said Harnden. "In the future, we might have to jump in to an northern or mountainous environment - this training was very applicable to what we do - we have to be able to jump in anywhere.
Being able to parachute into and fight anywhere is what the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade specializes in. As the U.S. Army's Contingency Response Force in Europe, the brigade must be ready to go anywhere in the U.S. European, Central and Africa Commands' areas of responsibility in 18 hours.
"This training was beneficial and we enjoyed it," said Capt. Matthew McCarthy, commander, Co. D. "We will take this knowledge back to the brigade and share it with our peers."
The Americans weren't the only one benefiting from the combined training.
"We are very happy to train with U.S. Soldiers," said Bensallah. "Training with another nations allows us to check our standardization procedures and also to see where we have problems an issues - so we can fix them and be greater."
This exercise is the first of three scheduled engagements with the 7th Alpine Regiment.