The two weeks of required annual training for Alabama National Guard soldiers have often taken place at the rolling countryside in the old Fort McClellan reservation in Anniston or in the steamy woodlands of Camp Shelby, Miss.
But this summer several hundred of the soldiers, most of them from a big engineering unit, have been spending their time working alongside their host country counterparts building and renovating trails, roads and buildings at a training facility known as Cincu in central Romania.
According to officers who have watched them on the job, what the Alabamians are doing in this part of Eastern Europe is not make-work stuff. They say the Alabama soldiers and the Romanians working with them are gaining valuable experience, experience they both can build upon, and that the presence of Alabamians is a sign of U.S. support to its allies in Eastern Europe, a sign that should not go unnoticed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Even the names of the exercises seem to have Putin in mind. The Alabama soldiers are part of an exercise called “Operation Resolute Castle,” and “Resolute Castle” is part of a larger exercise called “Operation Atlantic Resolve.”
“We’re having to do this in response … to Russia’s invasion and illegal occupation of Crimea and what they’re doing in eastern Ukraine and the other things that they are doing that are disturbing the security in Europe,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s commanding general in Europe.
The Alabama Guard’s presence in Romania is not new. The state Guard has had a partnership with Romania since 1993. But never have its numbers been so large there. Since June, contingents of nearly 100 Guard soldiers, a majority of them from the 877th Engineer Battalion, along with others from the 31st Signal Company, the 115th Signal Battalion and the 1166th Military Police Company, have been doing two-week rotations at Cincu as part of “Operation Resolute Castle.”
Some other members of these units also have been supporting a “Resolute Castle” operation in neighboring Bulgaria. The rotations are funded under what is called the “European Reassurance Initiative.” According to The Army Times, Guard soldiers from other states have been working in two-week rotations on projects and training exercises with their counterparts in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Also in June, as Alabama Guard soldiers were beginning their rotations in “Resolute Castle,” soldiers with the Alabama Guard’s 1st Squadron, 131st Cavalry Regiment, were doing two weeks of training with Romanian troops as part of another operation, named “Red Dragon.”
The fourth “Resolute Castle” rotation of Alabama Guard soldiers is in Romania now. A fifth and final rotation will take place in September.
Many of the Alabama soldiers, such as 877th’s commander, Lt. Col. Shawn Arnold, are veterans of deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. The Romanian military was part of the coalition of U.S.-led forces in both countries. Romania was under a Soviet-style dictatorship for about 45 years after World War II, but it now is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Hodges termed it “a critical part of the alliance.”
Romania’s partnership with Alabama is part of a U.S. effort dating from 1991 to mentor and train with nations formerly a part of the Soviet bloc. Twenty-two states have such partnerships. The Guard in Alabama’s northern neighbor, Tennessee, has a partnership with Bulgaria, and Tennessee Guard soldiers, with some participation by Alabama troops, are working to upgrade and expand a training facility there.
“Romania has been with us in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans,” Hodges said in a telephone interview from U.S. Army Europe headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany. “They are working very hard to continue modernizing. They are a very reliable ally and somebody that’s working as hard as they can to improve and modernize their own capability, and I would attribute much of that to the longstanding relationship that the Alabama National Guard has had with the Romanian military.”
Lt. Col. Shannon Hancock, an Alabama Guard spokesman who lived in Romania for three years as a liaison officer between Alabama and Romania, said that more than a few Alabama soldiers, including the Guard commander, Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, have longstanding relationships with members of the Romanian military. She also said that under the partnership program, Romanian troops have attended the U.S. Army War College and the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery.
“They trust us,” Hancock said. “It’s a trusting relationship.”
In the past, only three to five Alabama Guard soldiers, including top noncommissioned and high ranking officers, would go to Romania at a time, usually for a week. The need for larger numbers and more frequent exercises involving the movement of troops and equipment became necessary given Russia’s involvement in a separatist war in Ukraine, its annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its growing hostility toward NATO and the West.
“Now this is kind of showing our allied brethren our support … when they need help in their backyard,” Hancock said.
Hodges, a West Point graduate who has been in the Army for 35 years, said the U.S. is calling on the Guard and Reserve forces to rotate in and out of countries like Romania and Bulgaria because the number of active-duty U.S. Army soldiers in Europe has dropped dramatically.
“When I was a brand-new lieutenant, we had almost 300,000 soldiers stationed in Europe during the Cold War and the mission for those 300,000 soldiers was to assure our allies and to deter the Soviet Union,” Hodges said. “Today, we have 30,000 soldiers stationed in Europe and we still have the same mission to assure our allies and (deter) Russia.”
Part of Hodges’ challenge is to make the “30,000 look and feel like 300,000” with regular Army, Guard and Reserve units coming into the NATO countries to conduct exercises and other activities “so that the American flag, U.S. Army units and capabilities are seen everywhere.”
“Alabama takes this seriously, and when I visit the chief of defense for Romania he spends half the time telling me how much he likes Alabama,” Hodges said.
Lt. Col. Arnold, the 877th commander, was part of the first “Operation Resolute Castle” rotation in June. The Tuscaloosa County resident said he believes the rotations of Alabama Guard soldiers have given Romanians some “peace of mind” about the U.S. commitment to their security, but he also said in working together, the Alabamians and Romanians have forged friendships, adding to those already built up during the partnership’s 22 years.
“You cannot surge trust, and you cannot surge relationships,” Hodges said. “You can’t, you know, pull them out of a hat in case of an emergency. Those things are built over time, and that’s what Alabama has done in Romania.”