As Troop Rotations in Baltics Increase, So Do Holidays Away from Home

U.S. European Command's Gen. Philip Breedlove addresses U.S. soldiers on a training mission on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015, in Estonia, where the commander held a town hall meeting with troops. (John Vandiver/Stars and Stripes)
U.S. European Command's Gen. Philip Breedlove addresses U.S. soldiers on a training mission on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015, in Estonia, where the commander held a town hall meeting with troops. (John Vandiver/Stars and Stripes)

TAPA TRAINING GROUND, Estonia -- For Staff Sgt. Steven Daughtrey, a three-month deployment to this swampy base on NATO's eastern edge has been one of adaptation.

First, there was the challenge of food -- a carb-heavy Estonian diet with thick stews of mystery meat.

Then there was the austere training ground, where firing ranges aren't ready-made for blasting as they are in the United States.

"We have to set up our own ranges here. You have to make the land work for you," the 3rd Infantry Division soldier said. "We've had to open up here and get out of our comfort zone."

But perhaps the biggest challenge for the soldiers is being away from home for the holiday season.

The Georgia-based infantrymen who are training across the Baltics on a mission to reassure allies worried about a resurgent Russia are also the centerpiece of a strategy to send a deterrent signal to Moscow. And for soldiers on the front line of that effort, that means missing Thanksgiving with their families.

During a quick stop in Estonia on Wednesday, Gen. Philip Breedlove, head of U.S. European Command, met with troops to deliver a message of thanks and give an order: "I want you to get on Skype and Facebook later today and thank your family for their sacrifice."

On the second day of a three-day trip through the Baltics, Breedlove ate with troops and held a town hall meeting, where he touched on a range of issues.

With a more aggressive Russia operating on NATO's borders, Breedlove told troops that he expects larger troop rotations, more prepositioning of military hardware and larger exercises going forward. Since Russia's annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine early last year, the U.S. has stepped up the tempo and size of exercises with eastern members of the NATO alliance along Russia's periphery and recently positioned armored vehicles, tanks and other materiel in the region to facilitate joint operations.

"There is a lot more to do in Europe," he said. "My guess is that some of you will be sitting in a place like this again in the future."

For platoon leader 1st Lt. Brett Steele, the deployment to Estonia has been a reminder of the fast-changing security landscape. Only a few years ago, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the main destination for ground troops.

"The world obviously is a changing place," Steele said.

In Estonia the work has centered on tactics rather than strategy as troops fire tanks and other heavy artillery on the ranges.

During the training with the Estonians, Steele said he's developed an appreciation for their skill. "If we had to fight together, I have total confidence in them," he said.

However, Estonia with a military force smaller than an average brigade, would be relying heavily on allied aide, in the event of a military confrontation.

Meanwhile, as the 3rd ID unit nears the end of its rotation, there is a chance they will be back home in time for Christmas.

"That is the hope" Steele said.

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