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Special Forces train in Baltics

by Sgt. 1st Class T. Anthony Bell

RIGA, Latvia, (Army News Service, Feb. 25, 1998) -- A U.S. Army Special Forces unit hammered its way to the midpoint of an exercise which aims to train 600 former Soviet-block troops in small-unit combat operations.

The unit, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), based at Fort Carson, Colo., deployed in mid-January with approximately 70 soldiers to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for Exercise Baltic Venture 98. It is the latest in a series of exercises dating back to 1995.

According to company commander Maj. John Fenzel III, Baltic Venture is designed to familiarize the three countries with light infantry tactics and techniques to support their internal defense goals. He said that his troops have worked hard to fulfill these requirements.

"They've done a tremendous job," he said. "This is the first doctrinal Special Forces mission that we, as a company, have conducted in years."

Baltic Venture 98 kicked off in early January when a small group of Special Forces soldiers deployed to each country to finalize arrangements for the training. The bulk of the company arrived Jan. 24.

Currently, there are two, eight-to-12-man teams called Operational Detachment-Alphas assigned to each country conducting the training. They are covering a myriad of combat operations encompassing engineering, medical, communications, intelligence and light infantry disciplines. Most of the instruction is geared toward small-unit tactics with an emphasis on noncommissioned officer leadership.

Sgt.1st Class Douglas E. Swenor, who is training soldiers from Lithuania's Iron Wolf Brigade in Taurage, said that each team tailored the training to units in each country, but all training is designed to teach a few soldiers who will share what they've learned with a greater number of soldiers.

"We figured we'd...essentially train the trainers," he said, "versus taking 150 troops...and trying to teach everybody from the company commander down to private." Many of the U.S. trainers expressed enthusiasm at the pace Baltic soldiers are learning, but the mission itself has not been without obstacles, according to Staff Sgt. Clinton Nichols.

"I think they're receiving it real well," said Nichols, a team member assigned to train soldiers of Estonia's premier Kuperjanov Battalion. "Some of the words (from interpreters) probably don't translate over as easily from English to Estonian, but...once they do the practical exercises, they understand real well."

Trainees range from professional soldiers, like those of the Jaeger Battalion in Lithuania, to teenage conscripts of the Airborne Reconnaissance Battalion in Latvia. Although unit experience and capability are far ranging throughout the Baltics, there are a few traits units share. A lack of noncommissioned officer leadership is one such trait, and one the Americans have actively addressed.

"It's very important that the NCOs run their squads, run their units," said Capt. K.C. Parks, a team leader assigned to the Kuperjanov Bn. "That is the underlying focus we've given the Estonian defense force. I stress the importance that officers are only as good as their subordinates."

Nichols said the U.S. Army concept of NCO leadership is foreign to Baltic soldiers, and it will take more than one exercise to grasp it. "I think they'll get use to it over time," Nichols said. "I don't think it will change overnight, but right now we're planting the seed and eventually it will grow and the idea will catch on."

The lack of a potent NCO corps is a lingering remnant of the Soviet military machine, and there are many other reminders in the three countries that became independent in 1991. The Baltic countries have not totally embraced U.S. Army doctrine, but each exercise may be seen as a measure of progress.

"This is the second trip (to the Baltics) that this detachment has been on in the last 10 months," said Parks of his team. "Training with the same battalion, we've noticed that the doctrine that we've been teaching has been taking hold, taking effect within the battalion leadership as well as the companies and the soldiers themselves."

Swenor said, however, the Baltic countries select its doctrine, it must do it with the soldiers' interest at heart.

"I hope that they can incorporate some of our techniques to make their soldiers more survivable on the battlefield," he said. "That's what we hope to leave them with. That's our mission."

(Editor's note: Bell is with the Army Special Operations Command Public Affairs Office at Fort Bragg, N.C.)

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