Torgau 2007: 115th Engineer Group

 Trains in Germany with Russian Army

 

By Maj. Hank McIntire

Published December 27, 2007

 

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American and Russian Soldiers gather for a briefing on the Torgau 2007 exercise held at Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels, Germany, in December.

Photo by Spc. Josh Romig

American and Russian Soldiers gather for a briefing on the Torgau 2007 exercise held at Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels, Germany, in December.

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Soldiers of the Utah Guard’s 115th Engineers, 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, I Corps Artillery and Joint Forces Headquarters spent Nov. 27 to Dec. 15 training with their Russian counterparts in Germany as part of an international military exercise called Torgau 2007.

Situated on the banks of the Elbe River, the town of Torgau, Germany, became famous as the meeting place for the victorious American and Russian armies as they pushed east and west, respectively, at the close of World War II. Although this exercise took place in Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels, nearly 200 miles to the south of Torgau, military planners preserved the name as a symbol of the coming together of the two militaries in friendship and unity.

According to the Dec. 9 edition of Stars and Stripes, Torgau 2007 is the third in a series of exercises designed to foster friendship and cooperation between U.S. and Russian military forces. The venues alternate between locations in Russia and Germany, with another exercise in the works for 2008 to be held in Russia.

Map showing the nations of Berkshire and Pilsna, pitted against each other in a computer-simulated battle scenario for Torgau 2007.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Map showing the nations of Berkshire and Pilsna, pitted against each other in a computer-simulated battle scenario for Torgau 2007.

More than 60 Soldiers of the Utah National Guard provided a third of the participants in the two-week exercise, joined by Soldiers of the Russian Army, as well as those from the Illinois, Puerto Rico and Washington National Guards, all supporting the U.S. Army’s V Corps as the lead element.

The bulk of the Utah contingent worked at Grafenwöhr’s Camp Aachen, where the computer-simulated portion of the exercise took place. In the battle scenario designed to test the performance of a Allied division, Col. Don Summit, commander of the Utah Guard’s 115th Engineers and a resident of Delta, Utah, filled the role of a U.S. brigade commander serving in a fictional country called Berkshire. The U.S. and Russian units were part of a multinational task force facing an insurgent threat from the neighboring country of Pilsna.

Based on the current dynamic between Iraq and Iran, Berkshire is composed of a mix of Sunni and Shi’ia factions, while the primarily Shi’ia nation of Pilsna has an interest in destabilizing their neighboring country and is using terrorist tactics to achieve that goal, Summit explained.

American and a Russian officers confer with the help of an interpreter during the Torgau 2007 exercise.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

American and a Russian officers confer with the

help of an interpreter during the Torgau 2007 exercise.

And similar to a task-force scenario, Utah’s 115th assigned Soldiers from Joint Forces Headquarters, I Corps Artillery, and the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade to work in their specialties to support the overall effort.

“We brought a really talented group of people with us,” said Summit. “[Many of] our personnel haven’t done these jobs at this level before.”

Some who are learning new things include Utah’s junior-enlisted Soldiers working with the Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation System learning the inputs, planning, resourcing, scheduling, and executing the mission, and producing a finished product.

And some of Utah’s noncommissioned officers did similar tasks to what they performed during their deployments overseas. Sergeant Mark Simondi, of Herriman, Utah, personnel NCO with the 624th Vertical Construction Company, compiled personnel status reports for the brigade—something he did for his battalion in Iraq—but he is also getting some time on the map, plotting points and tracking unit movements.

Col. Don Summit, left, commander of the 115th Engineers, briefs Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet and a Russian officer on the status of forces.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Col. Don Summit, left, commander of the 115th Engineers, briefs Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet and a Russian officer on the status of forces.

“It’s neat to be at brigade level and have a division above and learn what they care about,” said Simondi. “It has been an eye-opener for me.”

“People are gaining experience in things they have never done before,” added Summit. “We’re trying to take that attitude where we’re allowing people to do new things and to take some risk.”

With Americans and Russians working closely together in the exercise, both groups quickly noticed the stark organizational and philosophical differences between the two militaries. The Russian brigade staff totaled four (a commander, chief of staff, a logistics officer and an artillery officer), while Summit’s team had 20 people to fulfill the traditional staff functions of personnel, intelligence, operations, logistics, civil affairs, communications, chaplain and legal support.

“Our system has a lot of redundancy,” observed Summit. “In their system, there’s one guy who understands the operation, and he directs everything himself. Their redundancy is in their number of brigades; our redundancy is inside the brigade.”

Lt. Col. Vasily Baldygyn, left, discusses military strategy with Capt. Jason Elphick of the Utah National Guard.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Lt. Col. Vasily Baldygyn, left, discusses military strategy

with Capt. Jason Elphick of the Utah National Guard.

Fires officer Lt. Col. George Graff, of Santa Clara, Utah, who returned recently from a deployment to Afghanistan with I Corps Artillery, applied his combat experience in managing artillery fires in response to the Pilsna insurgency but acknowledged that he had also learned much from the Russian officers.

“Their techniques are often simpler and more straightforward, and there are some advantages to that,” said Graff. “It’s been good for both groups to do some cross-leveling of these procedures. I think we’ll both benefit.”

From the Russian perspective, they are also expanding their knowledge base about the American approach to combat operations.

“Here I’ve gotten a clearer notion of the separate aspects of combat service support, classes of supply, the minimization of risk at each stage and a very careful approach to each phase of  planning,” said Lt.Col. Vasily Baldygyn, logistics officer for the Russian 2nd Motorized Infantry Brigade, 3rd Mechanized Division, through an interpreter.

The interoperability guide for the Torgau 2007 exercise, published in both Russian and English.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

The interoperability guide for the Torgau 2007

exercise, published in both Russian and English.

“And this book allows for constructive dialog,” said Baldygyn as he pulled out his copy of exercise’s joint operations manual, which offers parallel text in both English and Russian. “Our task organizations are different but not quite so significant in my mind. We have these interoperability guides to help minimize these differences.”

When asked what the Americans have learned from him and his colleagues, Baldygyn said with a smile, “We’ve been able to help them with open-mindedness and mutual understanding.”

Others seeing the benefit of this cooperative effort were the civilian contractors running the scenario. Jeff Deva, an employee of L3 Communications who worked with the Master Scenario Event List to make sure realistic situations were provided to the training audience.

“Once the MSELs are injected and they get the information, the players have to go through some sort of thought process and make a decision,” explained Deva. “These types of exercises are good for exercising staffs.”

Maj. Talon Greeff, left, works in the mayor's cell with Utah National Guard Soldiers to ensure the proper and logistical support for the exercise.

Photo by Spc. Josh Romig

Maj. Talon Greeff, left, works in the mayor's cell with Utah National Guard Soldiers to ensure the proper and logistical support for the exercise.

“The interaction has been great,” said Dean Vertz, Joint MSEL operator for the cell. “[They are] learning each other’s methods and how each side works. They’ve done a good job at breaking through that barrier, making decisions and sticking with those decisions once they have been made.”

While top leaders were fulfilling the most visible roles, working behind the scenes was Maj. Talon Greeff, of Riverton, Utah, communications officer for the 115th Engineer Group. He was assigned as the night-shift ‘mayor’ of the operation and supervised more than 20 Utah Soldiers. He was responsible for 18 buildings, 20 vehicles and meeting the food, housing, transportation, recreation and other needs of 200 people.

And in one case, meeting those needs that meant providing a tutor in the form of Col. Don Summit himself, a former math teacher, for a V Corps Soldier who needed help with a college algebra class.

American and Russian Soldiers board buses at Grafenwöhr for a well-earned MWR trip to Nuremberg Dec. 9.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

American and Russian Soldiers board buses at Grafenwöhr

for a well-earned MWR trip to Nuremberg Dec. 9.

“We have an exceptional group of Soldiers,” said Greeff. “I don’t think it’s an accident that they come here with a wealth of experience and civilian-acquired skills.”

And Greeff admits that his abilities and his perspective have been stretched during his time here.

“I’m working with a much higher level than what I am used to,” he said. “It’s been good to work at a corps level and see how USAREUR (U.S. Army Europe) works. I’ve had a chance to meet Russian soldiers and talk to them. I was surprised at how friendly and outgoing they are.”

Of course, Russian and American Soldiers mixed in some recreation time along with working hard every day. On their last Sunday in Germany, Capt. Annette Barnes, of Pleasant Grove, Utah, the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation officer for the Utah group, arranged for a tour of Nuremberg, which was about a 90-minute bus ride from ‘Graf,’ as Soldiers called it.

Guide Karen Christenson, left, orients Utah National Guard Soldiers on the history of Nuremberg on their MWR day during the Torgau 2007 exercise.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Guide Karen Christenson, left, orients Utah National Guard Soldiers on the history of Nuremberg on their MWR day during the Torgau 2007 exercise.

The Dec. 9 MWR trip for the group of 300 comprised of Utah and Illinois Guard members, active-duty V Corps Soldiers and Russian translators and military included the world-famous Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, located in the main market square, where there were shops, food booths, kiddie rides, bands and all things Christmas—German style.

Soldiers toured the old city of Nuremberg with Karen Christenson, a local guide, and learned about the history of the city, the castle, the emperor’s crown jewels, the roots of Hitler’s National Socialist party and the post-World War II war-crimes trials of Rudolf Hess, Hermann Göring and others.

Visitors tried the local fare, and the Bavarian-style bratwurst on a roll or the ½ meter-long wieners were big hits. Soldiers played as hard as they worked, and the daylong trip seeing the sights and picking up souvenirs for loved ones at home was a nice diversion for nearly everyone.

"Our Soldiers don't always get an opportunity to travel overseas, so it's important for them to get out and see the culture and history behind the places they visit," said Barnes. "Recreation is not only a nice thing, it's a very important thing to do. I think it lifted people's spirits."

With assistance from an interpreter, right, Col. Don Summit, left, presents a Russian officer with a gift during an informal social event.

Photo by Spc. Josh Romig

With assistance from an interpreter, right, Col. Don Summit, left,

presents a Russian officer with a gift during an informal social event.

“It was just nice to get out,” added Sgt. Simondi.

While dedicated leaders and intrepid support personnel kept the operation running smoothly, holding it all together were the linguists. A total of 80 language specialists supported the exercise providing simultaneous interpretation, document translation and functioning as the critical link between American and Russian leaders and Soldiers.

Sergeant 1st Class Jon Craig, a Louisiana native and 20-year veteran of the active Army, wore “a thousand hats” as he supervised the herculean translator/interpreter effort.

“Getting the right people to the right place at the right time every day, is almost overwhelming,” conceded Craig, who works as a Russian linguist for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and is stationed at Darmstadt, Germany. “And at the same time, we’re trying to manage a document throughput that averages 40-50 documents a day. Logistically it’s a nightmare.”

Russian officers proudly show off their new Utah National Guard jackets presented to them by members of the 115th Engineer Group.

Photo by Spc. Josh Romig

Russian officers proudly show off their new Utah National Guard

jackets presented to them by members of the 115th Engineer Group.

Adding to his challenge was managing linguists in Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels, which are about a 90-minute drive apart.

But the long hours put in by Craig and his team, which included 19 military linguists from the National Guard and the active Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, made it look easy.

Chief Warrant Officer Cynthia Choo, of University Place, Wash., a senior Russian linguist with Bravo Company, 341st Military Intelligence Battalion, Washington National Guard, has seen it all in her 35 years in the Guard and gave generous props to Craig and his team. 

“I’ve been completely impressed by the preparations going into translation work here, and I believe it has made a much more professional impression for the Russians on what the U.S. Army is capable of and is willing to step up to do,” she said.

Chief Warrant Officer Cynthia Choo, left, greets Lt. Col. Vasily Baldygyn at a dinner for American and Russian Soldiers Dec. 6.

Photo by Spc. Josh Romig

Chief Warrant Officer Cynthia Choo, left, greets Lt. Col. Vasily

Baldygyn at a dinner for American and Russian Soldiers Dec. 6.

A substitute teacher with the Tacoma School District, Choo worked a U.S.-Russian exercise in 2002 at Hohenfels and believes that Army linguistic support has come a long way in five years. She even made it a point to praise Utah’s Lt. Col. Milada Copeland’s contribution to the translation effort. As commander of the 115th Engineer Battalion, Copeland, of Sandy, Utah, was participating as staff officer, but as a native of Russia who came to the U.S. at the age of 14, she deftly conversed with her Russian colleagues in their language and provided them some well-timed explanations.

“What I’m seeing is a continual close communication when things need to be done in quick order,” added Choo. “It’s amazing to watch. They do it with such ease, you barely notice that they are there because everything is flowing. But if they weren’t there, there would be chaos.”

Complementing the senior-level operation at Grafenwöhr were the field-training exercises at Hohenfels involving Russian and American Infantry companies. To ensure a maximum amount of interaction, American squads were inserted into each Russian platoon, and to return the favor each American platoon received a Russian squad.

Linguists Staff Sgt. Cory Morrill, Staff Sgt. Dann Oppfelt, Sgt. Sam Saunders, Sgt. Shane Mitchell, and Sgt. Matthew Trainor at Hohenfels.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Linguists Staff Sgt. Cory Morrill, Staff Sgt. Dann Oppfelt, Sgt. Sam Saunders, Sgt. Shane Mitchell, and Sgt. Matthew Trainor at Hohenfels.

Military Intelligence linguists from the Utah and Washington National Guards were assigned early on in the exercise to support the Russian company, and some of them spent both quality and quantity time in the field with infantrymen from both countries.

Of the five Guard MI linguists assigned to Hohenfels, Staff Sgt. Cory Morrill, of St. George, Utah, from Delta Company, 141st MI Battalion, spent the greatest amount of time with the Infantry as they went through classroom instruction and field work. Soldiers received intensive training it tasks such as reacting to IEDs, running checkpoints, searching vehicles, cordon and search, clearing buildings, dismounted patrols, and survival skills.

All these preparations culminated in a one-day, live-fire exercise where Russian Soldiers put into practice all the training they had received on the M4 and M16 rifles, M240 heavy machine gun and the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW.

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, left, Utah National Guard adjutant general, visits with Sgt. 1st Class Richard Brusik and Staff Sgt. Melissa Binns Dec. 11.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, left, Utah National Guard adjutant general, visits with Sgt. 1st Class Richard Brusik and Staff Sgt. Melissa Binns Dec. 11.

“I’ve acquired a lot of military vocabulary,” said Morrill of how this exercise has helped his linguistic ability, initially acquired on a two-year church mission in Russia. “It’s given me a perspective of where my language skills are.”

Working in tandem with DTRA linguists, Sgt. Sam Saunders, a resident of Price, Utah, and a member of HHC, 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, worked for the personnel officer as a liaison between the mayor’s cell and the Russian battalion commander. He also honed his language skills by translating briefing slides and information signs into Russian for the Soldiers and staff at Hohenfels.

“I gained more confidence with the language,” said Saunders, whose civilian job is with  Juvenile Justice Services for the State of Utah. “I picked up a lot more military terms and learned about how the Russian army works. If I wasn’t interpreting, I got to hear someone else’s interpretation, and it gave me more of a perspective on how I can translate better.”

American and Russian colleagues share a lighter moment as they cultivate their off-the-clock relationship during Torgau 2007.

Photo by Spc. Josh Romig

American and Russian colleagues share a lighter moment as

they cultivate their off-the-clock relationship during Torgau 2007.

Working in the arms room where Russian Soldiers would draw and turn in the their weapons each day, Sgt. Matthew Trainor, of Pullman, Wash., a member of Bravo Company, 341st MI Battalion, Washington National Guard, learned a great deal from this unique opportunity to interact with our Allies one on one.

“I had to figure out ways to explain things and still get my point across,” said Trainor, a full-time student at Washington State University. “When else do you get to talk about rifles, magazines, blank adapters and stuff like that? It was a big help in that sense.”

“The Russian NCO corps isn’t nearly as experienced as we are, so I had the preconceived notion that Russian enlisted didn’t do anything,” admitted Sgt. Shane Mitchell, a Utah State University student and member of Bravo Company, 141st MI Battalion. “But I have seen them take charge and do some really great things.”

Workers at a food booth at Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt prepare the Bavarian specialty of bratwurst on a hot rolls.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Workers at a food booth at Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt

prepare the Bavarian specialty of bratwurst on a hot rolls.

“We had a lot of fun just sitting down and talking to the Russians,” the Logan, Utah, resident added. “We built camaraderie with these soldiers that we used to see as our enemy. So that’s been really good.”

Staff Sgt. Dann Oppfelt, of Sequim, Wash., a member of Detachment 1, Alpha Company, 341st MI Battalion, sees how this type of interaction has been and will be of benefit to both Russians and Americans.

“I’ll be busy when I get back, plugging it all in and finding out how I can get my Soldiers some real-world training.” said Oppfelt, who is self-employed in logistics development with partners in Russia and China. “Our army works because of the responsibility we place on our NCOs, and I think that is something the Russians will take away.”

Lt. Col. Clark Roberts, 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, presents a token of friendship to a Russian colleague.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Lt. Col. Clark Roberts, left, 300th Military Intelligence

Brigade, presents a token of friendship to a Russian colleague.

“For many of these American and Russian soldiers, this is the first time they have met their counterparts up close and personal,” continued Oppfelt. “And that’s always a good thing, breaking down barriers of ignorance.”

“We don’t see ourselves as Russians or Americans; we are soldiers,” concluded Saunders, capturing the essence of why this kind of endeavor is important. “If we needed their help [down the road], they know how we work, and that can only build the bond between our two militaries.”

And sizing up the contribution that the Utah and Washington linguists made to the success of Torgau 2007, Sgt. 1st Class Craig was generous in his praise. 

“It’s been great having them here,” he said. “The Guard linguists, they get grabbed a lot: ‘Hey you, I want to talk to this guy.’ And they knock it out.”