CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – After nearly a year of training, the Soldiers of the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 29th Infantry Division, Virginia and Kentucky National Guard, are now ready to support the NATO mission in Kosovo following their final training event at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany.
The nearly 20-day mission rehearsal exercise at JMRC, which concluded Feb. 23, was the culmination of training aimed to enhance readiness and prepare the brigade to join the multinational effort of providing a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all people in Kosovo.
“The training was designed to help you see yourself, so you’re always looking to take opportunities to make minor corrections or improvements in order to get better every day,” said Col. Christopher J. Samulski, commander of the 116th IBCT. “We had folks coming from all over the country, from
New York to Washington State to California, and (JMRC) gave us the opportunity to work through problem sets as a team.”
While at JMRC, the 116th IBCT built upon the skills and knowledge learned over the course of the unit’s 15-day annual training earlier this year and a 30-day validation exercise at the Camp McGregor Operational Readiness Training Complex in New Mexico, just prior to arriving in Germany.
Now that their time in Germany has concluded, the headquarters element of the 116th IBCT, designated Task Force Saint Lo, is set to provide command and control of the Kosovo Force’s Regional Command East, which represents a full component of contributing NATO and partner nations in support of wider international efforts to build peace and stability in the area.
Samulski, who is also taking charge as the RC-East’s new commander, said the ability to communicate with his multinational elements is key to allowing the brigade headquarters to command and control the more than 10 partner nations currently serving in RC-East.
“For many of us, this is the first time we’ve worked on a NATO mission,” Samulski said. “Part of what we needed to do (at JMRC) was learn how to work with our NATO partners. JMRC provided us the ability to work with our multinational partners, (something) you can’t replicate back in the States.”
Throughout their time at JMRC, Soldiers from Task Force Saint Lo, along with subordinate and partner units, trained on a multitude of tasks and duties. Their training focused on situations they will encounter routinely, such as interacting with the people of Kosovo and patrolling alongside Kosovo security organizations, to being prepared for worst-case scenarios, such as preparing for medical emergencies and responding to civil unrest, tasks considerably different from standard infantry duties.
“The first thing I started explaining to (our Soldiers) was we have to change the lexicon on (how we train),” said Command Sgt. Maj. Will Long, senior enlisted leader of the Kentucky National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry Regiment, 116th IBCT, 29th Inf. Div. “The serving (security forces) is not our opposition. They are who we conduct patrols with; they’re a credible force.”
As part of RC-East’s kinetic battalion, the 1-149 Inf. Bn.’s role is to support local and international organizations such as the Kosovo police and the European Union Rule of Law mission in case the security situation deteriorates in Kosovo. Long explained it’s essential for his Soldiers to maintain and hone their infantry skills as they still may be called upon to react at a moment’s notice.
“We’re still preparing for that,” Long explained. “We’re doing a lot of (leader development) to make sure they remember and don’t lose touch with infantry tactics. We’re going to continue to do a lot of things while we’re (in Kosovo) to hone their warfighting skills.”
With the exception of the medical support company and other small elements, most of the brigade is comprised of part-time citizen Soldiers, each of whom put their lives on hold to support NATO’s mission in Kosovo. Although, serving part-time in the National Guard hasn't hindered their ability to perform at the same level as their active-duty counterparts, according to Long.
“It can actually be harder to be a National Guard Soldier because active-duty Soldiers have 30 days to accomplish what you have to do in three days,” Long said. “You may not do it every day, but you’re expected to know, you’re expected to act, and you’re expected to do everything just like you would if you were on active duty.”
Samulski said the key to success as a Soldier in the National Guard is the ability to balance one’s civilian responsibilities along with their military duties, something that comes with experience and commitment.
“I think the National Guard is a very interesting paradigm,” Samulski explained. “You have to be good at two things; your (civilian) profession, and you also have to know your job in the military. I think it’s even more complicated when you’re looking at your family dynamic and what you leave behind.”
“It’s something that if you’ve been in the guard for a long time, you realize how to juggle.” He added. “Once they get the first deployment underway, I think it gets easier.”
For Samulski, his goal is to ensure the Soldiers of the 116th IBCT leave Kosovo better professionals and better Soldiers.
“My goal really is to develop officers, NCOs and Soldiers,” Samulski explained. “If you look at a National Guard Soldier and how much they do in a year, compared to what they’re going to do this year, I think this is a wonderful opportunity to learn your craft, become a better professional and take (knowledge) back with you to instill into your counterparts back in the States.”
Overall, the training at JMRC did an exceptional job of preparing Soldiers for what they will experience as they begin their rotation in Kosovo, according to Long.
“I was very pleased to see that everybody was motivated and everybody was getting after it,” Long said. “They worked pretty hard, and it shows a lot of promise for what we will accomplish in the next eight to nine months.”