VICENZA, Italy - Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade completed the final leg of Operation Bayonet Thrust, a week-long, multinational convoy after five months training in Lithuania, when they arrived at Caserma Ederle here, the evening of Oct. 30, 2015. But for the paratroopers of Company D, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, the day started much earlier and more than 440 kilometers away with an engagement in Zagreb, Croatia, with allies from the Croatian army's 1st Mechanized Battalion, Guard Motorized Brigade; along with the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, and Croatian military and civil leaders.Along the long drive home, Company D conducted community engagements with forces from participating nations in order to provide a highly visible demonstration of the U.S.'s commitment to the people of each nation and to the NATO alliance."This operation shows the strength of our allied cooperation and is a very tangible symbol of the relationship between the U.S. and Croatia," said Zoran Drca, the Croatian assistant minister of defense for policy. "These combined exercises within NATO highlight our combined interested when it comes to regional security. As we develop our joint defense critical capabilities, we are making an investment together in our readiness and the interoperability between our forces."One of the ways that the U.S. and Croatia strengthen their military relationships is through combined training and exercises."This year, U.S. and Croatian forces will train together for 70 small events and four very large exercises," said Julieta Valls Noyes, U.S. ambassador to Croatia. "Exercises like these are one of the ways that Croatia is working with the U.S. and NATO in order to secure our partnership for a safe future in a strong Europe."Besides Bayonet Thrust, the 173rd and 1st Mechanized Battalion, recently participated in Exercise Immediate Response, a multinational event, now hosted jointly by Croatia and Slovenia."Constant training between our forces helps to develop the compatibility and interoperability between the U.S. and European forces," said Croatian Lt. Gen. Dragutin Repinc, deputy chief of general staff. "This allied training allows us to better know each other, to develop strong relationships and know that we can rely and support on one another in future exercises as well as the battlefield."Another method of strengthening allied relationships come from military educational exchanges between the U.S. and NATO nations.Croatian Maj. Zdenko Fiala the commander of the 1st Mechanized Battalion, is a product of such exchanges. Fiala attended high school in Alaska and then returned to the U.S. for his university education."When I came back to Croatia from Alaska, I wanted to join the military, but at that time, we didn't have a military academy," said Fiala. "So I applied through the Ministry of Defense, and with the cooperation of the U.S. government, I went to The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. I furthered my education in American culture and the Citadel made me the man I am today."Fiala was then commissioned into the Croatia army. As a young platoon leader, he got another chance to benefit from the U.S.-Croatian alliance when his platoon went to Camp Ripley, Minnesota, to train with the Minnesota Army National Guard, through the National Guard State Partnership Program. The SPP is a U.S. Department of Defense program that links U.S. states with partner countries around the world with the intent of supporting international security cooperation."The partnership between Croatia and Minnesota is one of the longest in the program," said Col. Douglas M. Faherty, the U.S. defense attache in Zagreb. "Twenty years of bilateral defense cooperation brings continuity to the longstanding military relationship between the U.S and Croatia. The years and years of combined training and developing interoperability makes a real lasting partnership between our two forces."After training in Minnesota, and once Fiala was promoted to captain, he attended the U.S. Army Maneuver Captains Career Course for armor and infantry officers, at Fort Benning, Georgia, preparing him for company command. Three officers from his battalion have also attended, or are currently attending, the same course."Attending training in the U.S. helped me to get a closer understanding of how allied forces work and also helped my classmates to know what Croatia can provide militarily," said Fiala. "These are some of the things that we are doing together in order to strengthen our alliance - we're fostering cooperation at every level."Repinc, himself the first Croatian graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, agrees that educational exchanges are key for better allied understanding."Since 1996, we have be sending our people to the U.S. Army War College, the National Defense College and all kinds of command and joint staff colleges, as well as noncommissioned officer academies," he said. "It is important to instill at the earliest level that we have to work together and understand our alliance from within. We consciously are building these relationships to gain knowledge that may not be available in Croatia - this is very important to our alliance."An investment in the relationships between the U.S. and Croatian people is an investment in their future, said Drca."Every day Croatian and U.S. soldiers are proving that they are professionals," he said. "This is why every single dollar and every single resource that we are investing in defense is the best investment for our mutual security. Without building these personal relationships, the potential for cooperation is limited. The huge investment in our people through professional exchanges, continuous combined training and exercises like Bayonet Thrust, are enabling the alliance and building a permanent connection between the U.S. and Croatian forces."After the combined event in Zagreb, the paratroopers traveled through Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, all with the cooperation of allied military police forces. Though the road march phase has ended, the final phase of Operation Bayonet Thrust will commence with an airborne operation launched from Latvia and the simulated seizure of Italian Air Base Rivolto, scheduled for the evening of Nov. 4.The 173rd Airborne Brigade 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.