ADAZI, Latvia - Scanning across the horizon, everything appears still but just five feet blow the surface, concealed by vegetation and fresh layers of snow, Paratroopers assigned to Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, brace themselves in a defensive posture with loaded weapons at the ready.
The "Sky Soldiers" of B Co., 2nd Bn., 503rd Inf. Regt., on a training rotation in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, joined the Estonian Scouts Battalion to conduct partnered defensive operations during Exercise Steel Shield at Camp Adazi, Latvia, Nov. 7, 2016.
The live-fire exercise served as the culminating event of Steel Shield, enabling the 'Sky Soldiers' to demonstrate their full defensive power while simultaneously allowing the Estonian forces to evaluate their collective training.
"We got here on Nov. 3, and that night we began digging," said Cpl. John Siggers, team leader, B Co., 2nd Bn., 503rd Inf. Regt. "The first thing we established was overhead cover to evade any artillery or mortar splash from the enemy. From there, we began fortifying our side walls, continued to improve our overhead cover and then started to develop our sleeping area."
Capt. Christopher Salisbury, commander of B. Co., 2nd Bn., 503rd Inf. Regt., said that in order to conceal themselves on ground, they had to consider their presence from all angles.
"We are trying to get proficient at reducing our thermal footprint as well as the overhead footprint which can be seen from UAV systems," Salisbury said. "One of the things we did well was creating about 18 inches of overhead cover on our fighting positions to defend against artillery barrage."
As Battle Company laid down suppressive fire with the M4 carbine, M2A1 .50-caliber machine gun, M203 grenade launcher, M136 AT4 anti-tank weapon and M252 81 mm mortar system, the Estonian soldiers began pushing forward and executed a forward passage of lines in route to their next objective.
"We are a light infantry airborne unit, so to pick up heavy machine guns is not typically in our realm," said Cpl. John Siggers, team leader, B Co., 2nd Bn., 503rd Inf. Regt. "For many of these guys, it's their first time ever touching a .50 cal and I think they've blown it out of the water."
Aside from mastering the weapon systems, the most demanding aspect for the Paratroopers was acclimating to the weather.
"The biggest thing I think we've learned is how to operate in cold weather," Salisbury said. "We're not used to operating in 20 degree temperatures all the time. It affects your weapon systems, it affects your people, and it affects your equipment."
Being able to maintain personnel and equipment throughout the Baltic region, known for its frigid winter conditions, will be crucial as the Paratroopers continue training with NATO partners over the next few months.
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.