Moldavia, which is far removed from the picturesque Romanian mountain monasteries, Transylvanian castles and Black Sea resorts, is a part of Romania few Americans, let alone soldiers, have ever heard of.
But the 142 troops with the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team are getting a close look at the northeastern region — and its dogs.
The troops are here to train in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, the U.S. effort to defend Eastern Europe and reassure NATO allies in response to a more assertive Russia. Smardan itself is less than 20 miles from the border with the troubled Republic of Moldova, whose breakaway region of Trans-Dniester is under the control of pro-Russian separatists.
When U.S. tank crews are firing on this military range in Moldavia, they are constantly reminded that they’re a long way from home. Packs of stray dogs, an all too common sight in Eastern Europe but unusual in the United States, roam the barren training area, looking for scraps and vying for the busy soldiers’ attention.
The soldiers training on the base have been told not to pet the wild dogs, regardless of how cute they may look, as some may have fleas or diseases.
“It’s pretty tempting to pet them sometimes, but our medics tell us not to,” said infantryman Cpl. Joshua Redkey.
The dogs don’t seem to interfere in the live-fire training the soldiers are conducting. “They stay out of the way when it’s time to fire, so it hasn’t been an issue yet,” Redkey said.
Some soldiers joke that the dogs are here to safeguard the base and protect it from any leftover Meals, Ready to Eat.
“The presence of U.S. forces in Romania, and training with Romanian forces shoulder to shoulder, serves as a demonstration of U.S. commitment to our allies and partners,” said Maj. Jonathon Knapton, the public affairs officer for the command element of Atlantic Resolve.
The “Dagger Brigade” soldiers began their live-fire sequence Dec. 4, and the plan is to finish Dec. 18. During that time, they are firing .50-caliber mounted machine guns and 120 mm cannons from their M1A2 Abrams tanks, across an eerie, overcast landscape, with dogs of all shapes and sizes shadowing their every move.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Kentucky-based soldiers is the cold weather, which each soldier handles differently.
“I got my first taste of snow here yesterday. It came out of nowhere and hit me right in the face,” said 1st Lt. Fidencio Mendez, the executive officer of Dagger Brigade’s “Chaos Company.”
“It’s cold out here, but it’s fun,” Sgt. 1st Class Anton Kiren said. “Being on the range is the only time outside of a deployment when we can do our job and shoot our guns.”
To pass the time, the soldiers compete for best shot on the range and fastest times to identify targets. Whichever tank gets the highest score earns the title of “top tank” and exercises bragging rights to the rest of the company.
“Getting ‘top tank’ is very competitive,” Kiren said. “Everyone out here does their job great, but when they’re done, it’s all about camaraderie, and talking … about how much better you shot than everyone else.”
For many soldiers — including Pfc. Christian Alarid, a communications specialist — this rotation to Europe is the first time they’ve deployed with the Army.
“It’s very different than what I’m used to. I haven’t spent a lot of time in climates like this, but I like it,” Alarid said. “I think it’s interesting to be here and learn about Romanian culture and what their Army is like.”
He added: “We have a roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in. It could always be worse.”
The Americans have been working closely with the Romanians to do everything from shooting on the range to securing supplies.
“The American soldiers and Romanian soldiers have a good relationship,” said Romanian Capt. Vatavu Razvan, the base’s range control officer.
Razvan believes both nations’ soldiers bring different strengths to the alliance. He said American soldiers have the best equipment and are very effective, but the Romanians adapt more quickly to situations.
“It is good to have an ally with the greatest equipment in the world, I just hope that if we ever need them, they aren’t too far away,” Razvan said.
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