By 2nd Lt. Alexander S. CanslerOctober 7, 2015
RUKLA, Lithuania - Long before the sun could rise and burn off the heavy fog which permeated the training area, eight teams of U.S. and Lithuanian combat engineers had already completed the U.S. Ranger Physical Fitness Test, kicking off the 173rd Airborne Brigade's multinational Best Sapper Competition here Oct. 1, 2015.
For the month leading up to the competition, engineers from Company A, 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 173rd Abn. Bde. partnered with the Lithuanian army's Juozas Vitkus Engineer Battalion, building on the training partnership between the two forces and to test fundamental combat engineering skills.
The four-day competition was a culminating event which tested Soldiers on what they learned over the previous month. To further highlight the interoperability of these armies, four of the eight teams were mixed U.S. and Lithuanian.
"I wanted to design a final event that not only prepared our paratroopers for Sapper Leader Course, but also highlighted the training we have been doing together for the last month," said U.S. Army Sgt. Kenneth Coates, one of the event's organizers. "After discussing it with the Lithuanian leadership I think we came up with a really great solution."
Under the watchful eyes of former Sapper Leader Course Instructor Sgt. 1st Class Karlmark Yepez and noncommissioned officers from the Lithuanian Special Forces, the competitors marched to a series of training sites that tested their basic sapper skills to include a rappel tower, wire obstacle construction, day and night explosive breach lanes, and a poncho raft swim.
The competition tested more than just engineer-specific knowledge, as several of the sites on the course were basic soldiering skills such as land navigation, small-arms reflexive fire range, foreign and U.S. weapons assembly-disassembly site, medical lane, patrolling lane, and a stress shoot.
"The most difficult part of the competition were the physical challenges," said U.S Army Pvt. Jacob Hansbrough, a competitor on one of the winning teams. "It was great working with my Lithuanian teammates and learn more of their tactics, techniques and procedures."
This was an opinion echoed by Yepez, stating that, "there are some differences in tactics, techniques and procedures, but the teams did an excellent job of communicating together in order to overcome any of those hurdles," he said. "I saw some really good stuff out there and it was good to see our partnership grow at every site."
Their faces might have been a little dirty, and their bodies a little sore, but there were smiles all around as Lithuanian Lt. Col. Arunas Dzidzevicius, commander, Juozas Vitkus Eng. Bn. addressed the group of combined group of sappers at the competition's closing ceremony.
"The combined efforts and motivation this week shows me that we can work together when called to do so," said Dzidzevicius. "I'm very proud of the work that we have accomplished together during this competition."
The 173rd Abn. Bde. is in the Baltics as part of U.S. Army Europe's Operation Atlantic Resolve, a demonstration of continued U.S. commitment to the collective security of NATO and to enduring peace and stability in the region.
"Combined training events like this will serve to make our alliance stronger in the future," said U.S. Army Capt. Matt Wescott, commander, Co. A. "Our paratroopers are fortunate to have this sister unit in Lithuania, and we're looking forward to similar opportunities together."
The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, is the U.S. Army Contingency Response Force in Europe and is capable of deploying ready forces to conduct the full range of military operations across the U.S. European, Africa and Central Commands' areas of operations within 18 hours.