Finnmark, Norway -- Far above the Arctic Circle, the terrain is as beautiful as it is unforgiving. The valleys are surrounded by rows of jagged peaks where pine tree forests give way to large open areas of flat land and a thick blanket of white conceals a deadly peril - deep frozen lakes and canals that cut the countryside.
When a Paratrooper serves on the Army's Contingency Response Force (ACRF), they have to be ready for anything. For Paratroopers of B Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Exercise Joint Viking 17, in the northern reaches of Norway, is a stark reminder of the serious nature of their mission.
"We may not get sent [on an ACRF mission] into a temperate climate; it may be the Arctic and there are a litany of challenges associated with that," said Cpt. Thomas Huens, commander of Bravo Troop. "For one, we have to be prepared and think about the equipment and fuel we need to stay warm beyond 24 hours."
Taking place over the course of a week, Exercise Joint Viking 17 is the culminating event for the Paratroopers and many learned invaluable skills, included proper concealment in cold weather conditions.
"We learned about the thermal threat," said 1st Lt. James Henderson, Executive Officer of B Troop, 1-91 CAV. "When it's below freezing, the heat generated by the paratroopers and their vehicles can give away our position, which is a serious threat to our mission."
The equipment used by the Paratroopers included Norwegian Army's white camouflage netting. Operating in a more temperate climate, the 173rd Airborne Brigade uses netting in shades of green to conceal their positions, while the Norwegians use the lighter shades of gray and white to blend in with the snow.
"To better conceal ourselves, we learned that creating a space between the vehicle and the camo netting creates an insulated pocket of air that masks our location," said Henderson. "So we used natural terrain like trees and branches to prop up the netting to reduce our heat signature."
Additionally, part of the training to operate in sub-zero temperatures included completing various cold weather tasks to mentally and physically prepare the Paratroopers for the unforgiving Arctic terrain.
"We built our own shelters, jumped into an ice cold lake and learned how far you can push your body before you think you're going to quit," said Sgt. Tony Hernandez, team leader in B Troop, 1-91 CAV.
The Paratroopers jumped into a hole cut into a frozen lake. They exposed themselves to shock, learning that knowledge and experience is the difference between life and death. After climbing back on the ice, the Paratroopers were allotted 10 minutes to change into dry clothing without any assistance.
"In a real-life scenario, if my team were to fall in, I know that they are able to get out of the water effectively," said Hernandez. "They do not need to rely on anyone and can do it themselves."
"You have to look out for your guys and make sure they are safe," Hernandez added. "Because of this training and experience, I know my team is prepared and knows what to do if they get cold or wet. We will take this experience with us anywhere we go."
Preparedness and vigilance is vital to survival. Frostbite sets in at zero degrees Fahrenheit, guaranteeing that the risk of injury is real.
"The key lesson for the officers and non-commissioned officers is engaged leadership, because if our leadership isn't engaged, people get hurt," said Huens. "The cold weather is something that can rapidly degrade your ability to make judgments and decisions."
You become so tired and hungry that you don't realize that you're as cold as you really are and that's when accidents happen, said Huens.
The experience gained by the Paratroopers throughout Joint Viking 17 will serve to further enhance their ability to fight effectively in any environment.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy is the U.S. Army Contingency Response Force in Europe, capable of projecting forces to conduct the full range of military operations across the United States European, Central and Africa Commands areas of responsibility.