HOHENFELS, Germany — During Allied Spirit, U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers from Company A, 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion faced it all — realistic combat training with allied partner nations, a harsh Bavarian winter and COVID-19.
Under the best conditions the Joint Multinational Readiness Center training area offers troops a chance to hone military skills against a tough enemy on challenging terrain. In the dead of winter, with a pandemic virus never far away, the troops who undertook Allied Spirit had to think outside the box to overcome obstacles.
An annual U.S. Army Europe and Africa-directed, 7th Army Training Command-conducted exercise, Allied Spirit develops NATO and key partner interoperability and readiness. As temperatures plummeted, allied forces squared off with an opposing force. Among them were Soldiers of the Wisconsin-based 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, a U.S. Army Reserve unit from the 353rd Civil Affairs Command.
No stranger to cold weather or missions in Europe, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Buth, 31, of Hartford, Wisconsin, said despite rough conditions the civil affairs training was better than back home, where everyone wears the same uniform and speaks English.
“In these winter months, it adds another layer of ... challenges,” said Buth, who normally works as a federal police officer at Fort McCoy and took part in both a previous Allied Spirit exercise and an Atlantic Resolve rotation to Poland and Lithuania. “These rotations help our Soldiers a lot, giving them an opportunity for civil engagements in a simulated, yet real, environment.”
Each morning, amid freezing temperatures that rarely got warmer, the 432nd Soldiers set out under gray skies, into biting winds and icy, muddy streets. Their work focused on key leader engagements — meeting town officials to discuss their needs. They also check on local medical resources, communication, supplies and media reports. That information goes into the civil-military operation center, or CMOC, giving the maneuver brigade commander a better awareness of civilian conditions in the area.
Maj. Jim O’Keefe, 43, a government attorney from Dumfries, Virginia, took charge when the company commander got COVID-19. Several Soldiers tested positive, forcing the Reserve Soldiers to take adapt and take on various roles.
One morning, O’Keefe and Buth visited a local Internet café to assess the town’s communication challenges. Nearby Sgt. Latif Hukarevic, 28, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, quietly jotted notes. A restoration project manager with Yugoslav roots, Hukarevic is also a veteran of Allied Spirit, plus a tour at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba . His notepad came in handy when the team crossed back to their command post.
“We go over what everybody thought happened, then what actually happened. You cross reference the notes with what’s important to send back to the CMOC,” Hukarevic said.
Having U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers on hand – with varied civilian skills, education and languages – helped out the mission.
One morning, Spanish military police arrived with a busload of battlefield refugees. Buth called out for Spc. Jorge Magana, 28, a police officer from Chicago of Mexican heritage, took on the ad-hoc role of interpreter. An intelligence analyst from the Fort Sheridan, Illinois-based 16th Psychological Operations Battalion, Magana translated and shared information with the U.S. troops, Hungarians and Latvians.
“My first language was Spanish, so this is a really unique experience,” Magana said. “Some of the words don’t translate very well but ultimately, we understand each other. They are just relieved they have someone to speak Spanish with.”
Another Chicago police officer, Maj. Jaime Garcia, an observer-controller from the Homewood, Illinois-based 308th Civil Affairs Brigade, listened as Magana translated that the refuges required shelter, food and water. A veteran of both civil affairs and military police missions in Afghanistan, Garcia stressed how being comfortable working through language barriers can make the difference in civil affairs.
“It goes to show the importance of having a second language within our ranks,” said Garcia, who was surprised to find another Chicago cop training in Germany. “This is a great experience for our Soldiers to interact with our NATO allies.”
An observer-controller, Staff Sgt. Kim Evans, a painting contractor from Granger, Indiana, watched carefully. Evans, who serves with the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion, in Portage, Michigan, recently spent nine months working civil affairs in the Horn of Africa. During Atlantic Resolve, he offered guidance and synced efforts with active-duty staff from 7th Army Training Command.
“We make sure everybody stays safe and mentor along the way,” Evans said. “Plus, it helps me learn a lot more, about the whole battle and how the training is planned.”
The international environment was just right for Spc. Nicholas Koss, a college student from Poynette, Wisconsin, who’s taking global studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Establishing networks with local leaders and engaging with people in foreign country was what he had hoped for when joining the U.S. Army Reserve, he said.
“Civil affairs aligned with my interests, learning foreign languages and different cultures,” Koss said.
After three cold nights alongside a German tank battalion, Koss found relative comfort sleeping in a concrete-block basement that barely kept out the frigid Bavarian winds. Like everyone else, he ate only Meals, Ready-To-Eat, for days on end and bathed with baby wipes.
“It’s definitely been a struggle,” Koss said. “I wanted to challenge myself and I found that here.”