By Cpl. Katharine Silent WaterJune 28, 2019
JOHNSTON, Iowa - Rain pelted the tarmac of an airport in Bucharest, Romania. Weary, jet-lagged Soldiers descended from the Boeing 747 that flew them there all the way from Iowa. Hauling their equipment, they piled into two charter buses toward their final destination.
The narrow and unfamiliar roads weaved through the dark countryside as the Iowa National Guard (IANG) Soldiers made their way toward Cincu Training Area. As they peered out the windows, sleepy villages were a blur of plaster, brick and clay shingles. Five hours later, the buses slowed to a halt in front of a soggy field illuminated by generator-powered lights. The Soldiers piled out and unloaded their gear. It was already 5 a.m. They made quick work of finding their designated tents and setting up their cots, with little room to spare. It was time for the Soldiers in the 734th Regional Support Group (RSG) to hit the ground running.
More than 80 Soldiers traveled the long distance for their annual training to participate in Operation Saber Guardian 2019, a multinational exercise co-led by Romanian Land Forces and U.S. Army Europe at various locations in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. The exercise was designed to improve the integration of multinational combat forces. Planning started more than a year ago and required significant logistical support to get the personnel and equipment in place to train.
"As a commander, I want there to be mistakes and lessons learned so that my staff can work through those things and get better," said Col. Ralph Robovsky, commander of the 734th RSG.
This overseas mission offered the 734th RSG an opportunity to work through those training challenges in a way that closely resembles a nine-month deployment and provided Soldiers a chance to experience other real-world obstacles.
"Having annual training overseas requires a lot more logistical support than having a normal annual training back home," said 1st Sgt. Joseph Robinson, the noncommissioned officer in charge of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 734th RSG.
"When we do annual training back home, we load up our stuff, we drive to wherever we're going, and we tear it down and bring it back."
But for Saber Guardian, the unit had to load several containers and inventory everything that had to go through customs, Robinson said. The same had to be done when they returned home.
Additionally, IANG Soldiers with the 1133rd Transportation Company conducted line haul operations to move the equipment from Camp Dodge Joint Maneuver Training Center in Johnston, Iowa, to Charleston, South Carolina. The Soldiers logged nearly 62,000 miles over seven days to deliver 39 pieces of equipment to the 734th RSG's port of embarkation.
With help from the 1133rd TC and international partnerships, the 734th RSG set out to establish and provide base operating support, including base camp security and defense in order to sustain and protect coalition forces. Even with extensive planning, the unit still had to adapt to changing circumstances.
"When we first got the mission, we were under the understanding that we would operate as an actual regional support battalion," said Robinson. "Normally, we'd be on a forward operating base and in charge of 6,000 Soldiers."
The RSG's standard mission normally consists of taking care of tenant units, said Robinson. That includes providing base security, mission equipment, and basic supplies, like food, water and housing. While this wasn't the case when the 734th RSG first arrived in theater, once fully established, they began working with new units as they arrived.
Despite the logistical challenges and evolving mission tasks, the unit took full advantage of its overseas training mission, which provided a unique opportunity for its Soldiers.
"I've been in the National Guard for over 30 years, and this is my first overseas deployment for annual training," said Robovsky. "The possibility has always been there, but it takes a lot of effort and a lot of extra work from everyone."
The experience has been impactful, said Robovsky. Moving forward, the 734th RSG will look for future opportunities to train overseas and hopes to inspire other IANG units to mobilize for annual training as well. When units stay in the U.S. for annual training, the motions can become repetitive, while deploying overseas prompts Soldiers to adapt their mission in unfamiliar environments.
One challenge the 734th RSG encountered while out in the field for the duration of the exercise was a battle against the elements. Rain continuously swept across the foothills and the nearby Carpathian Mountains, forcing Soldiers to deal with flooded tents and fields, soaked equipment and humidity. They also learned to pace themselves. Instead of pushing all day, every day, they quickly realized that eating, sleeping and hydrating effectively were essential to mission accomplishment.
The challenges faced by the 734th RSG Soldiers didn't dampen their spirits nor hamper the development of strong bonds across the formation. Senior noncommissioned officer leadership, good attitudes and comforts that reminded them of home played big roles in their success, said Robinson.
Strengthened unit cohesion and unique training opportunities are also good for retention, said Robovsky. Soldiers are given the opportunity to see other parts of the world, which doesn't always happen. There's a different appeal to conducting overseas training exercises that challenge Soldiers and allows them to experience different cultures.
"It's exciting," Robovsky said. "You wake up in the morning and you see the Carpathian Mountains to the south. That's not something you would get in Iowa, [Camp] Ripley or [Fort] McCoy."
Working with foreign partners also gave the 734th RSG a chance to build relationships and learn how other militaries lead differently, said Robovsky. It was challenging at first because the U.S. has a way of completing tasks that other countries do differently. They had to adapt to their style of operations.
"I really want our Soldiers to understand how our Romanian counterparts do business," said Robovsky. "It's not about the military, it's about the culture. How do they interact, manage and lead their Soldiers?"
Ultimately, overseas training prepares Soldiers for extended deployments to different parts of the world, said Robovsky.
"It helps test them over a longer period of time, which then closely resembles what would happen if they deploy," said Robovsky. "It shows people that it can be possible. It doesn't have to be a deployment."