By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (July 22, 2015) -- In mid-March, about 400 Soldiers and about 100 vehicles traveled on land across Eastern Europe from Estonia to Germany, after the conclusion of a training exercise, which involved the Estonian army.
The "Operation Dragoon Ride," more than 1,300 miles in length, wasn't just a way home for Soldiers of the 2d Cavalry Regiment - known as "the Dragoons." It was also a show of solidarity with Eastern European nations, allies of the United States, who in light of Russian aggression in the Ukraine and Crimea, wonder what might happen to them in their own sovereign nations.
Riding in Stryker combat vehicles through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and finally back home to Rose Barracks in Vilseck, Germany, Capt. James M. Gibbs, commander, "Iron Troop," 3rd Squadron, 2d Cavalry Regiment, said he saw little opposition - but a lot of support - for U.S. troops involved in the effort.
Gibbs, during a July 22 media roundtable at the Pentagon, said everybody he encountered on the ride had been "overwhelmingly supportive ... especially the ethnic Estonians. As far as Dragoon Ride is concerned, our trip back down to Rose Barracks, Germany, I would say probably [it was] 98 percent positive, and 2 percent negative."
He said he saw a few signs telling the Americans to go home, but also "a lot of American flags."
The commander of the 2d Cavalry Regiment, Col. John V. Meyer III, said he believes the "Dragoon Ride," and the American flag, represents to Eastern Europeans a commitment by the United States to the relationships it has formed there, and a commitment to participating in the protection of those nations it is now allied with, and with whose militaries it now conducts military training with, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria.
"What matters is they see the flag of the United States of America, and what we represent," Meyer said. He said he believes Eastern Europeans understand that they, and the United States, are part of an alliance, and that as long as they remain a part of that alliance, the United States can be counted on to participate in the protection of their country.
"So it is really [help] that feeling, and what is represented by the commitment of our Army to Europe," Meyer said.
Highlighting just one example of Eastern European sentiment, Meyer relayed a personal experience he had during the Dragoon Ride, where he interacted with a 78-year-old Czech, who had presented him with a baseball mitt.
"Seventy years ago, when the U.S. Army liberated his town in [Czechoslovakia], he was playing baseball with a U.S. Soldier," Meyer said. "He ... went to give the baseball mitt back to that Soldier. And the Soldier looked at him and said, 'you know what, give that baseball mitt back to a Soldier someday in the future.' That gentleman waited 70 years. He was a 78-year-old man, and he came up and said 'I am returning the baseball mitt the U.S. Army gave me 70 years ago.'"
The mitt, Meyer said, is now enshrined in their unit museum in Germany. But he said the story highlights sentiment among Eastern Europeans, which he believes is more common than what is understood.
"That is the impact that the U.S. Army Europe is having in Europe today," he said. "The pictures that you may see, the stories that you may read, come nowhere close to capturing the feeling and the emotions in Eastern Europe of seeing United States Army Soldiers, and what we represent."
The Army has partnered with European nations in multiple exercises this year so far, including Sabre Strike, Platinum Eagle, Cavalry March, Noble Partner, Combined Resolve IV, Sabre Junction and Atlantic Resolve in June.
Maj. Bryan Frizzelle, the 2d Cavalry Regiment operations officer, said Atlantic Resolve had been a tremendous opportunity to build relationships with Eastern European allies.
"Training with our Eastern European allies has easily been the best experience I've had training with allied armies, foreign armies ... anywhere," he said. "There is a sense of nationalism that you don't find in other parts of the world. There is a sense of 'we want to get better and we can do it with you.' You see it the strongest in the countries, frankly, aligned with Atlantic Resolve ... the three Baltic states and Poland. There is the ability to build a relationship with them through tough, realistic training. And then to see them get better from month to month ... to see them working through their own governments to modernize their force, to get better not just in terms of training, but in terms of equipping. It's a refreshing experience, and an awesome opportunity."
Later this year, Meyer said, there will be another opportunity to build relationships with Eastern European allies. In September, 2d Cavalry regiment will be involved in Operation Brave Warrior. That will involve a more than 400-mile road march from Germany into the Czech Republic, then through Slovakia, followed by a river crossing of the Danube River with the Hungarian army, and then finally two months of training with the Hungarian army.
Meyer said that the relationships the Army has built with partner nations in Europe "matter," and that the recent Dragoon Ride there demonstrated that, when partner nations were able to help his team make the Dragoon Ride successful by providing logistical support along the way.
"It really taught us a lot on what we needed to be able to do to plan and prepare to sustain ourselves," he said. "And in order to do that, often our allies helped to sustain us. What they did is they provided - based off those relationships - places for us to rest at night, locations where we could stop and do maintenance ... they provided us escorts. All of that kind of came together and it taught us a lot about conducting and sustaining operations over that distance."
The Stryker combat vehicle is a central component to the 2d Cavalry Regiment, which includes four Stryker squadrons. Meyer said the vehicle, as demonstrated during the Dragoon Ride, demonstrates American capacity for operational mobility.
"The Stryker provides a capability that other formations in the U.S. Army cannot provide right now," he said. "An infantry brigade combat team or an armor brigade combat team could not have done Dragoon Ride. What a Stryker-based regimental combat team, or the regiment can provide, is operational mobility. We reassured our allies by being able to conduct a 2,200 kilometer movement, [through] Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, [Czech Republic and] back to Germany. And we couldn't have done that with a different type of formation. It provides operational mobility to maneuver throughout the alliance. That's an incredible capability we have inside of Europe right now."
Meyer has requested that those Stryker combat vehicles, about 81 of them, be upgraded with more firepower through the addition of a 30mm cannon. He told reporters the cannon is not meant to fight armored vehicles, but rather to fight other, similar light-armored vehicles. He said that infantry squads and the Javelin missiles inside of the Stryker formations serve as the anti-armor capability.
"The 30mm cannon provides us an ability to destroy [light] vehicles," he said. "So it's a combination of systems that we have. It provides us an opportunity to get our infantry in position, by destroying those [light[ vehicles ... dismounted infantrymen and their Javelins can destroy the armor."
1st Sgt. Basseal Stone, "Havoc Troop," 2d Cavalry Regiment, is the first female first sergeant ever in the 2d Cavalry Regiment. She dismissed the significance of the distinction - saying that when she puts on the uniform, gender ceases to matter.
"I am a female in gender. But when I stand up in front of my Soldiers, I am a first sergeant, a standard bearer," she said. "When I put this uniform on, I don't look at myself or my Soldiers as female or male. I look at them as Soldiers."
She added that both she and her male first sergeant counterparts all adhere to the same standard - "the Army standard."
Meyer dismissed the distinction as well, saying that "inside of the regiment, every Soldier is afforded an opportunity to achieve, and be all they can be."
He highlighted, with an anecdote from his time in Iraq as operations officer for Task Force Blue Spader, how opinions on women in the Army have changed, and how he carries that change with him to his regiment today. In June 2007, he said, a Soldier in his unit, 22-year-old Cpl. Karen N. Clifton, was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit her vehicle. She was the sixth Soldier killed that day.
"It didn't matter if she was male or female," Meyer said. "When she passed away, she had Family, friends, and volunteered to serve something larger than herself: to support and defend the constitution - an ideal. That's the approach that we [take] having our Soldiers serve in the Regiment. [Like with] 1st Sgt. Stone ... she is a NCO [noncommissioned officer], a first sergeant in the U.S. Army. And as a first sergeant in the U.S. Army, she is expected to train our Soldiers and enforce standards, and that is what she does. It doesn't matter if you are male or female, you are Soldiers in the U.S. Army, and that is how we are approaching it."
Meyer and other senior leaders from the 2d Cavalry Regiment were in the United States, away from their home in Vilsek, Germany, as part of the chief of staff of the Army-driven "Current Operations Engagement Tour." While in Washington, the team met with senior Army leaders, journalists and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to tell their story.
The 2d Cavalry Regiment, one of the Army's eight Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, is the oldest continuously serving regiment in the Army. From its formation in 1836, 2d Cavalry Regiment has remained "always ready" to defend the nation's security interests, with members of the regiment consistently demonstrating gallantry in action, including 20 troopers, who have been awarded the Medal of Honor.