29th Infantry Division HQ Heads Exercise Immediate Response

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy, National Guard BureauMay 31, 2024

U.S. Army Soldiers from the 43rd Multi-Role Bridge Company, 20th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade conduct a Wet Gap Crossing on May 11, 2024, at the Drawsko Combat Training Center, Poland, in support of Immediate Response 24. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Sgt. William China)
U.S. Army Soldiers from the 43rd Multi-Role Bridge Company, 20th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade conduct a Wet Gap Crossing on May 11, 2024, at the Drawsko Combat Training Center, Poland, in support of Immediate Response 24. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Sgt. William China) (Photo Credit: Sgt. William China) VIEW ORIGINAL

USTKA, Poland – Spc. Shiquies Branch, an administrative specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 29th Infantry Division, Virginia Army National Guard, has a birthday coming up. But she’s spending it in the field, which isn’t quite the celebration she had in mind.

“I’m a little sad because it’s my 25th birthday. You know, one of the milestone birthdays,” she said.

Though Branch may have chosen other ways to celebrate her birthday, she joins the rest of the 29th Infantry Division headquarters element as it serves as the division-level command in exercise Immediate Response 24. The training exercise takes place in Poland and the Czech Republic throughout May and includes more than 22,000 service members from the United States, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom.

During the exercise, the division headquarters has been providing overarching command and control over operations of those 22,000 service members, divided into seven task forces.

“Ultimately, what we’re doing is we’re building relationships,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Hawley, the top noncommissioned officer of the 29th Infantry Division.

Part of the Defender Europe exercise series, Immediate Response seeks to strengthen interoperability with allies and partner nations while focusing on the strategic deployment of U.S.–based forces, which means moving people, vehicles and equipment overseas.

The exercise also includes live-fire exercises, a wet gap crossing, and tactical operations based on a scenario of responding to and repelling an invading force from Poland.

Planning has been a year in the making.

“We’ve been conducting multiple meetings throughout the year, discussing how this exercise is going to work and what everybody’s responsibility is,” said Hawley. “As soon as we got on ground, we started building those person-to-person relationships with the other command teams.”

That’s helped bridge communication gaps and build operational skills.

“This training has been done before,” said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Joe DiNonno, commanding general of the 29th Infantry Division. “It’s not overly complex. It’s just the ability of getting through the initial friction of being able to talk with partners.”

Some of that friction comes from language barriers but also from differing ways of planning and executing missions, said DiNonno, adding that learning from those differences is one of the key takeaways of the exercise.

“When you have a partner nation who does it a certain way you observe that and it makes you reflect and say, ‘Hey, that’s not a bad way to get after it,’” he said. “They learn from us, we learn from them, and it makes us stronger and better.”

That also makes for a smoother transition and integration of forces should a real contingency operation occur, said DiNonno, adding that the multinational training also helps build greater readiness within the division headquarters and other U.S. forces taking part.

“The phrase we use is generational readiness because you have young officers and you have young noncommissioned officers that are experiencing something that they’re not going to be able to experience anywhere else,” said DiNonno. “We all draw from our experiences. And so, in that way, we’re building the next set of leaders by going through the Defender series.”

The branch, whose primary job is to ensure personnel records and Soldier statuses are up to date, said she may not think of it in generational terms. But the exercise has allowed her to see the larger impact of her role.

“It’s forced me to keep accountability and make sure that I’m on my Ps and Qs with the information because I’m not just worrying about myself,” she said. “Now, I’m worrying about someone else.”

Hawley said he’s been impressed with how the division headquarters Soldiers have remained engaged.

“My proudest moment is just watching all the things going on,” he said. “Everybody’s doing something, right. And, when you have this many Soldiers, you don’t know exactly what they’re all doing, but you’re seeing things get done.”

He said that’s helped achieve mission success and made things run smoothly.

“It’s in these situations where you see Soldiers take initiative on things that you may not have expected them to and because they did, it made the mission that much better and more successful.”

And the same is true working with the partner nations during the exercise, said DiNonno.

“I’ve been blown away by the level of professionalism in our partners,” he said. “These are hardworking aggressive officers and noncommissioned officers that are all about getting the mission done. We do hit friction points, but I’m just amazed and proud to have partners who fight through it the way they do.”

The exercise has also given DiNonno new experiences.

“I’ve never worked with the Poles — I’ve worked with the Brits before — and I’m getting exposed to the way they do things,” he said.

“We take immense pride in being able to come out here and take a lead role in one of the biggest events that happens in this area of operations,” said DiNonno. “It says a lot for the division headquarters, it says a lot for our ability to work with our partners. So, we take it very seriously and everybody who’s here realizes the impact of what it is that we’re doing.”

And the larger impact of the exercise is important, he said.

“These types of events cost a lot of money, take a lot of planning, and are well worth the bang for the buck,” said DiNonno.

And, it turns out, said Branch, the exercise also makes for a one-of-a-kind birthday celebration.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said. “Who else can say, ‘Hey, I spent my birthday in Poland in the field?’”

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