By Staff Sgt. Corinna Baltos, 24th Press Camp HeadquartersOctober 4, 2016
SIAULIAI, Lithuania -- As the Paratroopers got off their bus, they saw before them thousands of crosses, more than they had seen in their entire lives. However, they were not at a cemetery. They were not visiting the graves of fallen Soldiers from wars past. They were visiting the Hill of Crosses; a monument to the strength, pride and resolve of the Lithuanian people and everyone who has been repressed by tyranny.
On Oct. 1, the members of Able Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade took a break from the weeks of intense training to learn more about the cultural identity of their Lithuanian hosts.
"The uniting theme in these cultural trips is to make it very clear to our Paratroopers that they are performing an important mission here in Lithuania," said Capt. Anthony Formica, Able Company Commander. "Assuring our allies and deterring possible aggressors, is not lost on the Lithuanian people. This trip, and others like it, emphasize to our guys that the Lithuanians are a people who have endured tremendous oppression and travails over the course of their history, and that they are extremely dedicated to maintaining their hard-won independence."
Formica said the Hill of Crosses was chosen, not as a religious site but because the site demonstrated the courage, temerity and resilience of the Lithuanian people.
"The Soviets kept bulldozing the site, and they threatened to punish any Lithuanian caught putting crosses on the hill, but still every time the site was torn down, the crosses were back up the next morning," he said. "This resonated with our Paratroopers."
The Paratroopers have also visited the Holocaust Memorial in Kaunas, as well as other sites in Kaunus and Jonava, and will later this month spend a few days in the Lithuanian capital taking in the sites and interacting with the local population.
Able Company arrived in Lithuania last month to embark on a six-month rotation to train with their Lithuanian partners as part of Atlantic Resolve, a U.S. led effort being conducted in Eastern Europe to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the collective security of NATO and dedication to enduring peace and stability in the region.
For many of the Paratroopers visiting the hill was a sobering experience.
"It was interesting," said one Paratrooper as he walked away from the hill. "My mother will be glad I came here."
Crosses were first placed on the hill, which had been the site of the old Domantai Hill Fort, in 1831 in remembrance to those who lost their lives during the Cadet Uprising of the Polish Russian War. The site was bulldozed five times during the Soviet Occupation, the last being in 1984. However, Lithuanian citizens always rebuilt it as a point of national pride. It is estimated that there are over 100,000 crosses on the hill.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, is the Army Contingency Response Force in Europe, and is capable of projecting forces to conduct a full range of military operations across the United States European, Central and Africa Command areas of responsibility within 18 hours.
U.S. Army Europe is uniquely positioned in its 51 country area of responsibility to advance American strategic interests in Europe and Eurasia. The relationships we build during more than 1,000 theater security cooperation events in more than 40 countries each year lead directly to support for multinational contingency operations around the world, strengthen regional partnerships and enhance global security.