HOHENFELS, Germany - Approximately 30 Maryland and Virginia National Guard Soldiers from the Fort Belvoir, Va.-based 29th Infantry Division conducted a three-week mission Jan. 12 to Feb. 2, 2014, at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany.
The 29th ID Soldiers, led by Brig. Gen. Timothy E. Gowen, assistant division commander of the 29th Infantry Division, helped nearly 1,500 U.S. and international troops prepare to assume their role as Multinational Battle Group-East in Kosovo as part of Kosovo Force 18.
"Our role was to provide a higher command for the 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, which is preparing to take over the Multinational Battle Group-East mission set," Gowen said. "In effect, we are playing the role of KFOR headquarters. I, myself, am playing the role of commander of KFOR, Maj. Gen. Salvadore Farina."
"We brought a whole cross section of the staff which really displays the flexibility and agility of our division staff," said Col. William Coffin, 29th ID chief of staff. "We can bring out an 'A team' like we did here and still have an 'A team' in the rear."
The 29th ID Soldiers performed as the KFOR staff, serving as subject matter experts, enforcing KFOR orders, systems and procedures, and working with JMRC to help the deploying troops achieve their training objectives. They provided the commander of the JMRC Operations Group with real-time situational understanding and visualization of what the training unit was doing. Their presence forced the unit to provide reports and analysis to their higher command, just as they will be doing for KFOR when they assume responsibility to MNBG-E.
"Up until now they had always conducted this training with a simulated higher headquarters but you can't really simulate the realism of a higher headquarters unless you have staff members at the other end of the phone to marry up with the subordinate staff sections," Gowen said. "For us to be here to demand from our subordinate element what a higher command usually requires, such as asking for reports and updates, telling them to react a certain way, all that adds a little friction to this training. They get tasked hard so they get to that level of competence that they need."
KFOR is a NATO-led, international peacekeeping force responsible for helping to maintain a safe and secure environment in Kosovo. KFOR consists of two MNBGs which are ready to react to any threatening situation. MNBG-East is based at Camp Bondsteel and MNBG-West is based at Camp Villagio Italia. A battle group is a military organization at the level of a brigade, consisting of several battalion headquarters and numerous companies. These companies are highly mobile, flexible and rapidly deployable to potential trouble spots all over Kosovo.
The 504th BFSB from Fort Hood, Texas, is replacing the 525th BFSB from Fort Bragg, N.C., as the command group for MNBG-E. In addition to the U.S. Soldiers, KFOR 18 includes troops from Albania, Armenia, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Moldova, Romania and Slovenia.
Col. Brent Johnson, the 29th ID staff judge advocate, experienced the KFOR mission rehearsal exercise in 2006 when he deployed with the 29th ID as part of KFOR 8.
"A lot has changed since then," he said. "But in many ways we're still training for the same events, such as protests and riots. It's been interesting seeing some of the injects into the exercise because some of them seem to be based on what we saw and experienced when we were in Kosovo."
The 504th wasn't the only unit that gained valuable training from the exercise. The 29th ID Soldiers gained valuable skills as well as exposure to their NATO allies.
"The 29th is getting several things out of this," Gowen said. "Any time you have an opportunity for the staff to get together and act like a staff, it's great training. You can never get enough training and can never get enough opportunities to train as a staff."
The opportunity to become more familiar with NATO mission set such as KFOR was another advantage for the 29th ID.
"We're functioning as a two-star NATO headquarters which, being a division two-star staff, we could easily transition into our requirements here," Coffin said. "The difference is we have a joint and multinational flavor here which we don't normally get back home. It was great to see how the staff developed over a period of three weeks to function in a multinational environment."
"The JRMC mission really opened my eyes to the complexities of a multinational mission," said Master Sgt. Thomas Nelson, who served as operations noncommissioned officer in charge. "This exercise provided the NCOs and officers an opportunity to broaden our operational perspectives in regard to peacekeeping operations. I feel our staff learned a great deal in this regard and I look forward to other opportunities to increase our knowledge bank."
In addition, the Soldiers of the 29th had the opportunity to learn more about Germany in their downtime.
"Some people had never been to Germany so this was a chance to learn about Germany and experience some of the culture," Coffin said.
For Gowen, the personal highlight was the opportunity to represent the 29th in such a high-speed training environment.
"It's great to work with the active duty and give them a better understanding of us and what we can do," he said. "We're contributing to the Kosovo mission set, to the National Guard requirements, and to our active duty brethren. We're doing our part to prepare Soldiers to go down range."