I'm back from Croatia where I spent the last few weeks participating in D Co 2-135 Infantry's IR16 mission. Colloquially referred to as Immediate Response, IR16 was a 10 nation brigade level exercise designed to ennable rapid multinational allied reaction in the event of a security event (subtext: Russian invasion). We ran missions against Croatian OPFOR (opposition forces) and integrated a Montenegran rifle platoon with D Co. I serve as XO (executive officer) of D Co, which is a mounted weapons company so unlearning mounted tactics and reverting to battle drills not seen since joe left basic training was a special kind of challenge. But I think we did well. So did the Montenegrans and the Croatians.
The training took place at a post near Slunj, Croatia which was under Serbian control during the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995), so in our patrols we had to take special care to avoid areas which had been identified as bearing Serbian land mines. These were, in most cases, designated by white plastic tape (if it hadn't already blown away) but in more than one case joe discovered UXOs which weren't previously marked. No one was injured. The history of war the Balkans is widely documented, but I was in college in the early 1990s when the recent really nasty business went on so I took the oportunity to ask some of our allies their thoughts on it. Not surprisingly, they didn't want to talk about the war - not a one of them.
Our mission included occupy assembly area, movement to contact, and deliberate attack. The terrain was unforgiving. With topography seen nowhere in Minnesota save, maybe, the most rugged slopes of the Sawtooth Range, and groud cover of thickets which no reasonable person would attempt to penetrate unless they were being chased by Croatian werewolves, leading a 140 person light infantry company for two clicks made for interesting movements. We had a few injuries here and there, but none particularly serious. The Montenegrans performed honorably. They were professional, knowledgeable, and friendly. A unit from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived in Slunj from their base in Italy and their PAOs did an outstanding job documenting the interactions with Croatians, Slovenians, and Montenegrans. I've included a few of their clips below.
For a 43 year old guy, breaking brush with guys half my age was periodically challenging. One of the jobs of an XO is to lead the quartering party to estabish our assembly area. Large sections of the hills outside Slunje are choked with impassable brambles - impassable, I should say, for reasonable people, not for U.S. Army trained infantrymen. Our mission, like all missions, had a suspense timeline, so we hadn't the luxury of wandering around to find the best route. We usually just hacked through as best we could. A similar constraint was the enemy. Their scouts and OPs could be anywhere, so we avoided, as much as possible, well trodden paths and high speed avenues of approach (e.g. roads) which would increase the chances of our movement being detected. This meant I really had to move, and in all that equipment it got quite hot. If the enemy detected our position, we were sure to receive IDF (indirect fire, e.g. mortars or artillery) which meant we had to high tail it out of the AA immediately or a repeat shelling would result in further casualties. That meant more running, over rocky terrain through thorny bushes and wait-a-minute vines. None of this was substantially different from the typical training experienced by United States infantrymen, but the terrain and vegetation was unlike any army post I had trained on. Further, the integration of the Montenegrans as allies and fighting the Croatians as OPFOR was a new twist. The Croatians used tactics which would have been frowned on in US Army TRADOC schools, but they were unorthodox and, therefore, effective. In our second day of FTX, the terrain and vegetation made for a difficult movement which resulted in the entire company bunching up. This made a perfect target for artillery fire. And then, it was, in fact, a target for artillery fire. Almost the entire company was obliterated. We learned our lesson. The OCs resurrected us and we didn't make the same mistake a second time.
I am proud of every American soldier who participated in this training. They took the mission seriously and earned their pay. We made friendships with foreign soldiers and learned a thing or two about their combat tactics. I am happy to be back with Melissa, Alice and Eleanor (the latter of whom aged 25% of her short life in my absence - I returned to her new tummy time skills and predilection for giggling at inappropriate times).
Some more video of our operations in Croatia: