NEWS | July 15, 2014

Soldiers form bonds in Pennsylvania with Lithuanian counterparts

By Staff Sgt. Matthew Jones Pennsylvania National Guard

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. - Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, is among the busiest National Guard training centers in the United States. A single infantry platoon conducting annual training would normally be unremarkable, but the training conducted by a group of Lithuanian soldiers with infantrymen from the Pennsylvania National Guard's 28th Infantry Division was anything but ordinary.

Lithuania has been a partner nation of the Pennsylvania National Guard for more than 21 years. During that time, Soldiers from the Pennsylvania National Guard have traveled to Lithuania to conduct countless training exercises. Soldiers from both nations have even deployed together to Afghanistan. But never before has such a large group of Lithuanian infantrymen and women conducted annual training alongside their Pennsylvania counterparts.

This training, while seemingly routine for the seasoned infantry soldier, will pay dividends according to Lithuanian Lt. Col. Aurelijus Motiejunas, commander of the 5th Territorial Unit of Lithuania's National Volunteer Forces.

"This year I have mission-essential tasks for my unit ... like fighting in a built-up area," said Motiejunas. "Therefore, these guys will be used in my unit as instructors, and I will increase my unit capabilities for these mission-essential tasks."

Fort Indiantown Gap provides advance training ranges to help the infantry troops train on such tasks with minimal downtime while maximizing their ability to conduct meaningful after-action reviews. A large town with paved streets and several buildings equipped with video and audio recording devices, called the combined arms collective training facility, or CACTF, allows troops to review their performance and enables leaders to observe the training from multiple perspectives and inject real-time scenario-altering actions into the training.

"(It) was very nice to see the CACTF training area has cameras all over, and it is possible to observe training, what's going on inside of the buildings," said Motiejunas. "To observe, from a site, how units and soldiers are doing inside the building. That's very good for after-action review."

Additional training locations included digitally controlled pop-up-target ranges, a two-story raid house equipped with sensory-inject devices-like smoke, scent, sound, and light machines-and a live-fire shoot house.

"Lithuania is a small country and of course our training areas are much smaller than this one," Motiejunas said. "You have very nice facilities here."

First Lt. Sergejus Afanasjevas, a platoon leader in the 5th Territorial Unit, said he was stunned to hear that his troops would be using live rounds to conduct forced-entry and building-clearance training.

"(My) first impression of the live-fire shoot house was, 'Wow! No! Don't do that!'" he said. "Regulations in our army are so strict. Your guys said, 'we will train them, you will see.' It's a great job of your instructors, your soldiers."

The facilities certainly set up the soldiers for success, but planning and execution are also vital factors for successful training.

Pennsylvania Army National Guard 1st Lt. Ruslan Taigounov, a Russian-born platoon leader in Company B, 1-111th Infantry, 56th Stryker Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, said the training was a challenge, but one that his unit was able to meet.

"Basically my platoon sergeant and I were supposed to integrate our soldiers into their platoon and facilitate training for them, so we came up with a training plan that kind of progressed from the very basics of M4 zero and (qualification) all the way up to platoon (situation training exercise) with an air-assault mission," said Taigounov. "We had to do that within one week of training."

The week was not without its challenges, particularly the language barrier. This was overcome through a combination of commonly spoken languages: English, Russian and Infantry.

"When we train, we train hard, and the same thing with the Lithuanians, when they train, they train hard," said Spc. Jonathan Umipig, an automatic weapon gunner in Company B, who said he expected the soldiers to be too different to click in such a short time. "It was almost like they had been in the unit for years. We clicked right away."

In less than two weeks, the soldiers formed bonds of respect and trust that could prove beneficial for years to come. For the Pennsylvania National Guard, training with international soldiers provides valuable experience that could prove beneficial during future overseas contingency operations. For the Lithuanians, mobilizing overseas to conduct training to U.S. standards provides their soldiers with experiences otherwise unavailable.

"It was an amazing experience. The Lithuanians have taught us so much, and I feel like we've taught them a lot and are helping them become a better unit," Umpig said. "I'd say we grew very close, we were like one complete squad."

This growing unity is something that has been actively fostered over the past 21 years Motiejunas said.

"It is very important to know that we have friends-U.S. and NATO partners-that are ready to support us," said Motiejunas. "We are not alone in the world, and if something happens concerning Lithuania's independence we will have support from U.S. and NATO."