KRIVOLAK, North Macedonia – Warm wind rushes into the Stryker as a ramp lowers. A Pennsylvania National Guard Soldier steps out onto the rocky soil and feels the heat creeping through his boots as the sun sets behind the jagged mountains. The Soldiers around him surge forward, and the relentless heat accompanies them.
Fairly new to the military, this is the first time traveling overseas for Pfc. Alan Smith and most of his peers in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry Regiment, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT), 28th Infantry Division.
"The weather here has been scorching hot…we're always on the move and training," said Smith.
Dripping in sweat, they navigate their way through the harsh terrain; traversing over hilltops, along ridges, and down through valleys. The Soldiers, predominantly from Pennsylvania, were not expecting the heat this early in the summer.
Welcome to North Macedonia—a small country just north of Greece that is working toward becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States Army and the Army of the Republic of North Macedonia, have been working for over a year planning exercise Decisive Strike 2019. The planning process also included coordinators from Albania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Montenegro and the United States 19th Special Warfare Group.
Pfc. Bojko Bojkovski, 1st Mechanized Infantry Company, Army of the Republic of North Macedonia, has been in the military for two years. His time in the military has given him many experiences, but he was looking forward to Decisive Strike 2019, where Soldiers from both the U.S. and North Macedonia would have the opportunity to strengthen the partnership between their countries while build lasting relationships.
"I waited for the moment to come here and meet Americans; to meet new friends and experience new things," said Bojkovski.
Involving more than 2,500 participants, this first iteration of Decisive Strike 2019 is North Macedonia's largest multinational exercise to date. Co-led by the Army of the Republic of North Macedonia, and the 56th SBCT, 28th ID, the exercise spanned almost two months, taking place at the Krivolak Military Training Centre in Krivolak, North Macedonia.
"This is the first big exercise working with United States Army. It's great for our unit. [America has] a great army and we can gain a lot of experience working with [them]," said Sgt. 1st Class Shaban Malikji, 1st Mechanized Infantry Company, Army of the Republic of North Macedonia.
When speaking about the partnership and the professionalism of the Soldiers from North Macedonia, Maj. Dave Fittipoldi, the 56th SBCT Operations Officer, expressed how great it was working with their allies.
"From the planning perspective, you could tell that they were committed to the exercise and really enjoyed working with us. They had been professional during the whole exercise," said Fittipoldi.
Training improves interoperability
The various training exercises of Decisive Strike 19 facilitated improved cooperation and interoperability. These exercises included combined arms operations in urban terrain environments, training events using live rounds, direct engagement with targets, special reconnaissance missions, and simulated medical evacuations.
"One of the hardest things that we do is the combined arms at the joint level. Although the tactics are similar, we still have to worry about the language barrier," said Fittipoldi.
Soldiers from North Macedonia already understood quite a bit of English, so the American Soldiers worked toward learning the Macedonian language. Throughout the exercise the troops were able to find other ways, such as hand and arm signals, to work through the problem that the language barrier presented.
"Training with Soldiers from North Macedonia has been a great learning experience. They are a mechanized unit too, so we got to learn about their vehicles and the way they maneuver," said Smith, who is fluent in Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian, all languages commonly understood in this area.
The exercise consisted of several 24-hour operations and troops were engaged long after the sun went down. Companies were sometimes dual hatted, acting as both the support and assault elements during the training.
"We were two integrated companies attached together to reach our objectives," said Bojkovski.
Companies from both the Army of the Republic of North Macedonia and the 1-111th BN, 56th SBCT, moved together through key terrain. Combined training enables allies and partners to respond more effectively to regional crises and meet their own national defense goals.
Soldiers moved in tactical formations, engaging pop-up targets staged along the route, keeping them attentive as they moved to capture the hilltop.Hunched over and dragging their feet in exhaustion, they collectively pushed through and claimed the hill.
As the sun sank below the ridgeline, illumination flares lit the night sky, revealing the battlefield. At the first sight of a target, machine gun fire rattled the air. Focused on the training, Soldiers communicated to the best of their ability and reacted seamlessly. As the last target fell, a long, arduous day of training finally came to an end.
With a smile on his face, Malikji said, "Our training reached the goal that it was supposed to reach." The pride evident in his voice was reflected on the faces of the Soldiers around him.
A planned break
Eating, sleeping, and training alongside foreign counterparts facilitates creating close bonds, but multinational exercises like Decisive Strike 2019 present Soldiers with opportunities to build lasting relationships, outside of the training construct as well.
Community events gave Soldiers from both armies a chance to stand shoulder-to-shoulder as they interacted with local citizens in several towns throughout North Macedonia.
"The American Soldiers are fun guys. We had the chance to meet a lot of them and share our life and Army experiences, they are not so different from us," said Malijki.
Smith agreed, saying, "They considered me as one of their own brothers, which is exactly how I feel about them as well."
In the lead-up to their departure for North Macedonia, the 56th SBCT conducted a book drive with the students in the South Western School District in Hanover, Pennsylvania. During a break in the exercise, Soldiers from the unit teamed up with soldiers from the 457th Civil Affairs Battalion and the Army of the Republic of North Macedonia to deliver the books to local schools.
Soldiers were able to spend time speaking with the school's administration while also interacting with the children.
"It was awesome to talk with the children and explain the names of the Disney princesses and characters that they didn't know," said Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Goldsworthy, 1-111th BN, 56th SBCT.
The sounds of laughter and cheer filled the classrooms, as the Soldiers took the time to read small portions of the books to the children. Schools in North Macedonia are heavily influenced by the English language, making communication easy.
"One of the girls there reminded me a lot of my daughter at home, it's nice to get a little taste of that out here," said Goldsworthy, a father of three, who is excited to be reunited with his family in the coming days.
The children sang traditional local songs as a thank-you gesture, giving the Soldiers a taste of their culture. Starting off a bit hesitant, their little voices increased in both volume and confidence by the end of the song.
A learning experience
American Soldiers were able to further their experience with a "Cultural Day," an opportunity to further explore North Macedonia with trips to the nation's capital, Skopje, and to Lake Ohrid, the largest lake in the country.
"For it to be my first time with my unit overseas, I learned so much in a short period of time. We learned a lot about the culture and Soldiers from North Macedonia, it's been a great experience," said Smith.
Troops from both armies agreed that Decisive Strike allowed them to learn new things, and build lasting relationships. The camaraderie was evident on a daily basis as Soldiers preserved their memories with photos, exchanged military uniform patches, and shared life experiences.
"This exercise has been very beneficial for both armies. I've made great relationships working with our allies," said Malijki.
When asked what advice he would give to the Soldiers from North Macedonia who will be participating in future iterations of Decisive Strike for the first time, Malijki replied "Don't hesitate to make friends with the U.S. Soldiers, and bring more North Macedonia flags because the American Soldiers love to exchange flags."