MIDDLETOWN, Pa. - This summer, the 201st RED HORSE took their skills "across the pond," sending four rotations of Pennsylvania Air National Guard members to Lithuania to help construct an air-to-ground military training range there.
The new range, located at the Brig. Gen. Kazio Veverskis Training Grounds near Kazlu Ruda, Lithuania, will be used to train Lithuanian and American military forces as well as NATO partners around the world. The range includes mock villages, bomb circles, runways, fire breaks, an observation point for tactical air control parties, and a strafe pit, which is a place where low-flying aircraft can practice repeat attacks with bombs or machine-gun fire.
Lithuania is the Pennsylvania National Guard's designated state country partner, which allows the allies to cooperate to enhance and improve military operations and training.
The 201st RED HORSE Airmen involved with this project, primarily civil engineering personnel, were tasked with completing the range over a period of approximately two months. The first Airmen to arrive broke ground July 8. Each rotation of troops spent about two weeks in country before the next rotation took over, with the fourth and final rotation wrapping up in mid-September, according to RED HORSE personnel.
The training range is similar to the 193rd Regional Support Group's Bollen Air-to-Ground Weapons Range at Fort Indiantown Gap, which provides a realistic tactical range environment for flying units.
Planning for the new range in Lithuania began about two years ago and was a collaborative effort between RED HORSE and Lithuanian military officials, according to Maj. Brian Hoover, officer in charge of Rotation 2 of the project. The major has been involved from the project's inception, helping to design the range.
"RED HORSE is essentially a design-and-build construction company that arrives on scene and doesn't leave until the work's completed. We provide cradle-to-grave capability," Hoover said. Hoover is a drill-status Guard member who works full-time as a bridge engineer for CDM Smith.
"This project was part of our unit's deployment for training, which means we got to use it as a means of providing valuable and required training for our personnel, while also constructing a useful training range for our Lithuanian state country partner. It was a win-win," said Master Sgt. Andrew Hikes, non-commissioned officer in charge of Rotation 2. Sikes is a drill-status Guard member who works as a hostage negotiator full-time for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Hikes noted that working alongside the Lithuanians was a phenomenal experience, despite some challenges.
"Our ability to adapt and move forward as a unified team with our Lithuanian counterparts was amazing. The training, collaboration and support were tremendous on all sides," he said.
Hikes mentioned that one of the biggest challenges they faced with this project was the breakdown of heavy equipment. It was tough to keep running the local dump trucks, dozers and excavators that were available on site.
Some RED HORSE troops were only present for their respective rotation, while others, like project manager Master Sgt. Daniel Steenstra, were on scene in Lithuania for the duration of the work.
"We developed and settled into a rhythm," Steenstra said. "We learned to manage our expectations, particularly with regard to the condition and availability of heavy equipment. We hoped for the best and planned for the worst. We made changes and adapted as necessary along the way."
Hikes added, "We had to redesign some of the range plans to accommodate for some heavy equipment breakdowns. Also, the range was formerly a Soviet base, so we had to work very closely with the Lithuanian explosive ordnance disposal team to ensure the ground was safe before our Airmen start moving dirt around.
"When we needed anything, it wasn't days or even hours before we got support. It was typically minutes before (the Lithuanians) were on site taking care of whatever we needed. It was absolutely phenomenal – the rapport we built with our state country partner and the synergy we experienced," he said.
Lithuanian Maj. Kestutis Cekavicius, training area commander at the Brig. Gen. Kazio Veverskis Training Grounds, echoed Hikes' statement.
"It's hard to express what they've done," the major said as he described the work of the RED HORSE team. "They are committed to doing quality work that will serve us long into the future."
"This has been a huge job and a facility that will be used by many NATO forces," Cekavicius added. "This is the first and only air-to-ground range in Lithuania. It is a quite important, strategic project for our ground and air training efforts. The relationship we've built with (RED HORSE) has been awesome. Any issues we had were dealt with immediately, whether on or off duty. These are fine folks and I would like to meet them again and work together in the future. We're already talking about future projects and I look forward to it."
Regarding the future, the state country partners are already making plans to work together again.
"We're in discussion about how we can work together in the future," Hoover said. "We're identifying needs and some projected recommendations. There will be more details to come on that soon."
The 201st RED HORSE is trained and equipped to be world-wide deployable within 72 hours, with the capability to build an airfield or base as the mission requires. From civil engineers to plumbers, electricians, medical, supply, finance and communications … all personnel assigned to the unit go out to accomplish the mission as one team.
State Partnership Program
The State Partnership Program is a joint Department of Defense initiative managed by the National Guard and executed by the states. It began in 1993 with partnerships between U.S. states and newly independent former Soviet republics - the PANG and Lithuania were paired that year. The program has grown significantly since its inception with more than 70 current partnerships worldwide.
The program links a state's National Guard with a partner nation's military and security forces in an effort to build and foster a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship.
Goals of the program include supporting combatant commanders and embassy security cooperation objectives; providing an innovative - yet low-cost and small footprint - security cooperation program. The program also seeks to cultivate relationships that enhance influence and promote access and help train National Guard members for missions across the globe.
Typical partner activities include disaster preparedness and crisis management collaboration; exploration of aviation, military medical and engineer activities; leadership development; border and port security research; critical infrastructure and resources protection planning; and deployment planning and family support.