Spc. Jacqueline Dowland www.army.mil July 20, 2015
SAAREMAA ISLAND, Estonia (July 20, 2015) -- Perplexed frowns and occasional pauses to check maps indicated the mounting frustration felt by the U.S. Soldiers as they trekked across the island, scouring the countryside for checkpoints marked on their map. The unfamiliar terrain of the Estonian landscape, thousands of miles from home, presented new challenges to the Soldiers, yet they remained determined to find their destinations successfully.
Soldiers, with Destined Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, joined their Estonian military and civilian counterparts to participate in the Kubarsaare Raid land navigation exercise, Saaremaa Island in Estonia, as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, July 18.
As each ally used the exercise to hone its land navigation skills, competing against one another to complete the task first, each team looked forward to the finish line, where everyone involved would be welcomed and efforts celebrated as one united team, having worked together toward a shared goal.
Saaremaa, the largest island in Estonia, measuring 2,673 square kilometers, is noted as being where a Viking raid occurred around 1000 A.D. History met modern day times as the NATO allies united as one strong front to conquer the challenges of the exercise while coming across buildings and landscapes rich in history. A restricted zone from 1946 until 1989, the island has only recently begun to be viewed by visitors, further adding to the richness of the experience for the U.S. Soldiers.
"We didn't know what to expect when we first arrived at the island, but they made us feel like we were a good part of the training here, working alongside the Estonian forces," said Sgt. Sean Fitzgibbons, an intelligence analyst with Destined Company, and a native of North Attleboro, Massachusetts.
As music played softly in the background, Estonian civilians stirred pots of traditional Estonian soup, the fragrant dish filling the air, reminding the Soldiers of the hearty food, which would be waiting for them when they crossed the finish line.
"This is my second time training here in Estonia," Fitzgibbons said. "Each time I've been here, the Estonian people, both military and civilian, have gone out of their way to make us feel welcomed and accepted."
Despite trekking approximately 17 kilometers in rain and mud, if a team didn't find its coordinates on the first try, it returned to the rally point only momentarily to restock its water supply or change out wet socks before energetically heading back out to try again. Each team faced new challenges not typical to a land navigation exercise, further strengthening the Soldiers' perseverance despite tackling unfamiliar tasks.
"My favorite part was land navigation and canoeing in one event, I've never done that before," said Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan James, platoon sergeant with Destined Company. "At first we were stuck doing 180 degree circles, but we quickly learned new skills to overcome the challenge, and finished the task in a short amount of time."
As each team crossed the finish line, applause and shouts of congratulations sounded from both Americans and Estonians. Awaiting the teams were steaming bowls of traditional Estonian food to be consumed before participating together in games of disc golf and volleyball.
"Serving together in our alliance with our American friends is always a welcome opportunity," said Melis Eit, an Estonian military veteran, who participated in the exercise to lend his support and knowledge. "We are a brotherhood, and a team."
US, Estonian soldiers conduct Exercise Saaremaa Island