By Spc. Alexander NeelyNovember 26, 2012
CAMP ILLISKY, Kazakhstan (Nov. 25, 2012) - In a pasture of knee-high grass, below the austere shadow of the Tian Shan Mountains, the only noise that could be heard was the boots of five U.S. Soldiers crunching into the fertile ground.
Soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry, moved cautiously in a wedge-formation -- not lulled by a soothing breeze rolling down from the mountains, their eyes were fervent investigators, scanning the landscape.
The platoon leader spoke words in a near-whisper, "Keep your intervals and ..." Bang.
The Soldiers dove into the grass. A chorus of semi-automatic rifle shots echoed in three-round bursts. Shrill cries of instructions were shouted; some words reaching the platoon leader, others dying under the sound of gunfire. The Soldiers low crawled, scrambling to get shoulder-to-shoulder in the dirt. The muzzles of their M4 semi-automatic rifles slithered through the blades of grass like a snake, spitting return fire. The enemy fire ceased. An uncomfortable silence blanketed the pasture.
"Let's go Soldiers, get up and move on to the next lane," said Gordon Smith, medical simulation coordinator. Each Soldier slowly stood, teetering with the weight of their equipment.
"Okay, that's another down. Wait five minutes to send in the next group," said Smith into a walkie talkie. An inaudible response was heard crackling through the speaker.
"Who's next?" said Smith. The speaker responded, "Kazakhstan."
For almost a decade, thousands of service members and civilians from more than 15 nations have converged on the Republic of Kazakhstan for Exercise Steppe Eagle. This year, from Sept. 6-18, more than 1,000 participants from six countries were invited to be a part of the 10th-annual, multinational, peacekeeping exercise at Camp Illisky (a training facility outside Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty).
"Steppe Eagle is an important example of how Kazakhstan and its partners are working together to improve interoperability," said Col. John G. Rogers, Third Army/Army Central, or ARCENT, chief of exercises and Exercise Steppe Eagle 2012. "Nothing can replace the kind of cooperation and camaraderie that comes from Soldiers interacting with each other on the ground at exercises such as Steppe Eagle."
Aside from final preparation meetings and set-up, the initial day of the exercise had one central theme: camaraderie. Men and women in different uniforms, from different countries stood and sat in small circles -- exchanging stories and laughter. Though, when the sun began to set -- the uniforms were exchanged for workout clothes and the laughs were swapped with shouts -- as service members took to the soccer field and volleyball courts.
"They were very friendly; everyone welcomed me like family," said Gulzhamal Defelice, a supply specialist with 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry. "It was very interesting for me to see how American Soldiers and Kazakh soldiers work together."'
On the third-day, at 6:30 am, minutes after the morning dew had dried on the beige blades of grass, service members from all six countries were stationed throughout different parts of Camp Illisky. Some Soldiers were assigned to patrolling the training area, some were tasked to maintain security at entrance control points and some were transported to the weapons range.
At the range, Soldiers sat with expectant eyes fixated on leaders from each nation, while they described different weapons. After several speeches and a safety brief, a wide-range of weapons were fired at an assortment of targets. However, no service member left the range without consulting another for pointers on firing position, weapon diagnostics and/or overall aim.
Capping off the day, a select group of service members were given an opportunity to fire a rocket-propelled grenade.
"It is very interesting and fun for me, because I always wanted to come to Almaty and I've never experienced the Kazakh or Russian army," said Defelice, who was born in Russia, visiting Kazakhstan for the first time.
The following day, service members from each nation were informed that over the next few days small platoons would be tested in combat lanes. Although the objective of each lane was the same -- patrol a route, look for a weapons cache and ensure a local village was secure -- service member's decisions would change overall factors, according to Smith.
For instance, one platoon was denied communication access with the "mayor," after their abrupt entrance into the village. In need of an immediate solution, British Lt. Charles James, platoon commander of the second platoon, 5th Battalion, The Rifles, offered a few words of advice. The British army officer and exercise observer reminded the Soldiers of the previous days training. With a solution, the platoon, through an interpreter apologized to the mayor, ensured their villagers of their safety and discovered the weapons cache.
"It's very difficult and interesting for us because our platoon has never done this experience," said Cadet Iliyas Naushauly, Kazakhstan Peacekeeping Brigade.
The lane exercises also tested service members' medical prowess, with aid and nine-line medevac requests.
"What we're trying to do is build confidence within their medical force for future, possible peacekeeping operations," said Smith, who proctored several lanes throughout the week.
"This is a unique opportunity for us to build partner capacity; that's the intent of ARCENT and we've been working toward that goal for awhile with the Kazakhstan army," said Master Sgt. Deon Dasrio, medical simulation evaluator.
In addition to outdoor training, several military members and personnel participated in humanitarian mock-operations through a variety of peacekeeping scenarios. According to Lt. Col. Bert Robbins, civil affairs officer for Third Army/ARCENT, clear communication between all nations participating was paramount for success.
On the final day of Steppe Eagle 2012, the exercise culminated with a closing ceremony in which service members were able to celebrate personal, country and collective achievement.
"It was a great experience; we are already planning for next year, and I am looking forward to working closely with the Kazakhstanis and being a part of Steppe Eagle again," said Maj. Moises Ortiz, Third Army/ARCENT training and exercises officer. Ortiz was among those who met with representatives from North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom to develop concepts and focus for the exercise.
After a pass-and-review and an award presentation, speakers from each nation commended participants and developers for their dedication toward partnership.
"I want to congratulate you on another successful Steppe Eagle exercise," said Lt. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, Third Army/ARCENT commanding general. "Thank you for serving your countries and for bringing our countries closer together."
The ceremony concluded with the playing of each nation's national anthem - like the final trumpet call over an old battlefield.