By Ms. Brittany Bangert (USACE)September 27, 2012
AVIANO, Italy --A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Forward Engineering Support Team-Advance (FEST-A) conducted training and remote engineering missions in partnership with Italian Army Reconnaissance Engineers here September 9-21, 2012.
"It is no understatement to say that this event is the 'Super Bowl' of FEST-A training," said Master Sergeant Steve Frank, FEST exercise planner.
With ambitious plans for more complex training missions and incorporating real-world missions in support of U.S. Army Africa and AFRICOM, the planning staff knew it would be challenging.
As part of NATO's mission to forge a growing network of partnerships, the FEST training incorporated interaction with Italian Army Reconnaissance Engineers as security forces. This provided a unique forum for the U.S. and Italian members to build trust and learn how to address possible security challenges together.
The FEST and Italian army experienced several scenarios they could encounter while deployed. The team completed route reconnaissance, structural assessments, and base camp development while role-players representing local nationals and hostile individuals used small arms fire and improvised explosive devices to add to the challenge of the missions on terrain similar to Afghanistan and Africa.
Interacting with the USACE Reachback Operation Center (UROC) also prepared the team for deployment. The UROC allows the engineers to virtually connect with experts in private industry, academia, USACE, and other government agencies in the U.S.
"If a problem exists that cannot be solved by my FEST on the ground, we used the UROC for assistance," said Capt. Shai-Lin Ynacay, FEST leader. "The UROC supports us by answering technical questions, providing imagery, and helping us with equipment and software issues."
FEST veteran, Sharon Valente, who was on a FEST that helped to build base camps at the beginning of the Iraqi war, said, "This FEST environment is more conducive to a real situation that we could encounter if deployed and as a result it is the best FEST exercise and training that I've ever been on."
Most of that realism can be attributed to the presence of the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment from Udine, Italy, the oldest combat engineer regiment in the country. Their 14-man team, including one officer, one non-commissioned officer, and 12 soldiers is an Advanced Combat Reconnaissance Team (ACRD) Platoon.
"We specialize in detecting improvised explosive devices or other threats on the road," said Captain Matteo Unich, the Italian company commander.
The Italian security forces worked jointly with the Europe District FEST-A, which included four engineers and four support staff, to conduct a route reconnaissance and determine if a heavy armored-vehicle could pass through the area safely.
The FEST immediately felt the challenge of working with a foreign partner.
Team member and electrical engineer, Tim Nauman, explained how Europe District engineers partnered with the Italian aviation unit to conduct an air route reconnaissance.
"We assessed a pathway to deliver a heavy armored vehicle to a destination," said Nauman. "While simulating the route, we looked for anything that would make it difficult for that vehicle to get there. We're interested in bridges, roadway width, curves, overhead obstructions, tunnels, and any other potential issues for a large vehicle."
The biggest challenge during the air route reconnaissance for the engineers was communicating with the Italians.
"We had a language barrier which could be very real for us if we're deployed. We had a little crash course in Italian and English and learned the simple commands -- left, right, straight, stop, help," said Nauman. "It was quite funny as they were saying words that they thought were English and I'm sure we were doing the same in Italian. But, they were very cooperative, very helpful, expressed a great interest in what we did, and eager to help."
Both sides understand the value of training with these types of language barriers.
"There's nothing we do where we are the only nation involved. We're always partnering with other nations. It's important for the team to be cognizant of the challenges with language, culture, different vehicles, and other unforeseen obstacles when they are deployed," said Lt. Damon Col. Montgomery, FEST exercise planner.
Captain Unich and his regiment also understand the value of this partnership.
"Training together with other nations and sharing experiences through tactical procedure is very important for our soldiers. It's important for us and the United States and we can help each other with our work," said Unich.
"Cooperation is paramount," he said.
Not only did the Europe District employees conduct route reconnaissance missions with the Italians, Spc. Elizabeth Monge, shared the U.S. Army best practices for medical training.
"The Italians were interested in how we do medical assessment in a hostile environment. And it's something that anybody could do without advanced training," said Monge. "I demonstrated treating shock of a fellow soldier, using tourniquets, improvising tourniquets, and treating a chest wound."
In addition to the medical training, the Italian soldiers received a briefing of the FEST-A missions along with an overview of the engineering equipment used during the route reconnaissance.
"The Italians were intrigued by the engineering equipment that we used during the route reconnaissance," said Monge.
"We showed them a variety of our equipment including the TeleEngineering Communications -- Deployable (TCE-D) which gives us access to the internet, the ability to make phone calls anywhere in the world, and conduct video teleconference (VTC) in a secure and non-secure environment," said Monge.
"We demonstrated the capabilities of the equipment mounted in their vehicles during the route reconnaissance. The Automated Route Reconnaissance Kit (ARRK) collects pictures, voice recordings, GPS location, route dimensions, and road details while the IKE (It Knows Everything) can collect coordinates and photos of areas of interest," said Monge.
"Using this equipment while Italians served as our security force enabled us to gather data to complete our missions," she said.
Working and interacting with the Italians is only one aspect of the FEST training expansion.
Valente looks forward to future FEST exercise and highlights the importance of improving the process.
"We have a FEST that is growing. The processes are growing and the exercises are growing and continually changing. This particular FEST is different than the past and there have been a lot of improvements," said Valente.
"As a result of this FEST, we're developing checklists, scheduling more training for the equipment, and developing standard operating procedures," she said.
Besides overall preparation for deployment and supporting AFRICOM and U.S. Army Africa, developing these procedures and improving these training missions was the ultimate goal of this FEST-A exercise.
"Our cooperation with the Italian Engineers is a tremendous plus for both the team and the Italian Army. Learning to operate in a multi-national environment in a challenging and realistic scenario significantly aided both organizations for future missions," said Frank.
The Italian army looks forward to joint training missions in the future.
"Training together with other militaries is a great tradition," said Unich. "It's very important that we share our experiences and understand how each other works."
Europe District employees culminated the exercise by preparing a cookout for the Italian soldiers to thank them for their partnership during this exercise. In return, the Italians presented the Europe District employees with platters of Italian pastries and a plaque while looking forward to future joint training opportunities.