A U.S. Army battalion of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) that recently completed a deployment to Estonia departed last month with a vast amount of valuable training experience. They developed interoperability through small and large-scale training exercises with their Allies in the Estonian Defense Forces, NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battle Groups, and nearby U.S. units. They honed their own warfighting skills and contributed to the ongoing defense of the region and deterrence of aggression from adversaries.
Most importantly though, they left Estonia having forged unbreakable bonds, relationships, and friendships with the Estonian Defense Forces and the Estonian people.
The 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, part of the U.S. Army’s famed 101st Airborne Division, deployed to Estonia in early 2023 to train with and serve alongside the Estonian Defense Forces.
The unit’s rotation to Estonia marked the 506th Infantry Regiment’s first return to Europe since their initial combat action parachuting into Normandy, France, during the D-Day invasion in June 1944. The 506th has a storied history of service during World War II, Vietnam, and the Global War on Terror. Its deployment to Estonia paired it with another storied unit from Estonia – the Kuperjanov Battalion – which earned distinction for its role in liberating southern Estonia from the Red Army in 1919.
The U.S. troops arrived in early 2023 as the fulfillment of NATO’s 2022 Madrid Summit pledge to bolster presence of NATO troops on the alliance’s eastern flank.
The 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry, known as “Red Currahee” served primarily at Camp Tapa and Camp Võru during their time in Estonia, but they conducted training engagements throughout Estonia and Latvia while also partnering with other U.S. troops deployed here, including a high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) unit serving in Estonia and U.S. Army helicopter units.
A few weeks after arriving, Soldiers from Red Currahee’s Gunfighter Company participated as the opposing force during the NATO eFP Battlegroup validation and integration exercise. This was the battalion’s first opportunity to work alongside Estonian partners and train against NATO allies.
Lt. Col. Eric Evans, the Battalion Commander of 1st Battalion 506th Infantry recalled that this first major training exercise set the stage for a rotation of unique and valuable partnership.
“This was the first time many of our Soldiers trained with NATO partners, which brought new opportunities like training against real tanks,” Evans said. “It was during that exercise we realized our unit needed extra support to defend an objective. We called our Estonian Allies who immediately sent us an anti-tank spike platoon and heavy machine guns that we integrated into our defense. Later in the battle, we used our indirect fire mortars to fire in support of Estonian targets.”
The unit served as part of Task Force Marne, a U.S. Army task force led by the 3rd Infantry Division, which includes American units spread across Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
“Since 1942 our battalion has had the motto ‘Currahee’ which means ‘Stands Alone’ in the Native American Cherokee language,” Evans said. “When our battalion was selected to serve in Estonia apart from the remainder of our brigade in Romania we prepared to ‘Stand Alone’ again. Yet from our earliest interactions it was evident that we were truly ‘standing together’ with our Estonian partners and other NATO Allies as one of the closest units to the Eastern Flank.”
The unit’s goal throughout its time in Estonia was to work side-by-side with NATO Allies to share best practices, standard operating procedures, tactics, and more. Red Currahee trained shoulder-to-shoulder with their Estonian Allies during large-scale exercises like “Spring Storm” in May with 14,000 NATO Allies from a dozen nations. This exercise took place across the country with real-world objectives in both urban and rural environments.
Sgt. 1st Class Kayne Melko, a Platoon Sergeant in Gunfighter Company, said the deployment represented a valuable opportunity to conduct traditional military training coupled with training that incorporated local communities.
“Back in the United States, all of our training takes place in closed military training areas, like the Central Training Area,” he said. “The Soldiers were excited to operate in a real-life town of Kadrina surrounded by local civilians. It posed a complex but rewarding challenge for leaders as the increased realism of the training reminded Soldiers early in the rotation of the importance of our mission here in Estonia.”
Training events like these helped further enhance the interoperability between U.S. and Estonian Defense Forces troops as well as other NATO Allies, and the eFP Battle Group. Such interoperability is critical to strengthening shared security and building Estonia’s capacity for defense and deterrence against any threat. But the unit also conducted numerous small-scale exercises and engagements, many of which involved the local civilian population.
In June, the battalion marched in the national Victory Day Parade in Viljandi. Less than a month later those Soldiers returned to Viljandi, this time on two UH-60 Black Hawks and two CH-47 Chinooks, where they conducted an air assault operation at Viljandi Airport and met local Estonian Defense League Soldiers who secured the landing zone.
In August and September, Red Currahee Soldiers joined forces with elements of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, the North Estonia Medical Center, and Tartu University Hospital, and Kuressaare Hospital to simulate aerial medical evacuations of Allied personnel to local medical facilities. The helicopter crews had the chance to train with local emergency paramedic crews and allowed hospital staff and local civilians to explore the aircraft.
The battalion also conducted training engagements throughout Estonia and Latvia while partnering with other U.S. troops deployed to Estonia, including a high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) unit from Alpha Battery, 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, and U.S. Army helicopter units from 2nd Battalion 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, or “Task Force Knighthawk,” based at Lielvarde, Latvia. The units trained with local partners at the Ridali Airfield and Flying Club to conduct sling-load operations and simulate a resupply of HIMARS ammunition attached with special cables under a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter by U.S. and Estonian Soldiers.
The HIMARS unit, known as Task Force Võit, partners and trains regularly with the Estonian Defense Forces’ 1st Brigade and the NATO eFP Battle Group serving in Estonia, while serving under the operational control of the 3rd Infantry Division Artillery.
“The opportunity to train with 1-506th Air Assault Soldiers and 2-3 Aviation pilots was a unique and appreciated exercise because rocket artillery Soldiers rarely get the chance to train with helicopter assets and almost never conduct sling load operations,” said 1st Lt. Alexandra Gummere, a platoon leader in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment. “The fact that we were able to experience this with our Estonian partners assisting us with rigging and hooking onto the aircraft in complete darkness made the experience all the more rewarding.”
The U.S. increased the number of troops serving in Estonia over the past year, and American troops serving here are assisting the Estonian Defense Forces in developing their own division through tactical and operational level exercises and partnered training events such as multinational command post exercises.
Maj. Craig Hymel, the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry operations officer, said training with NATO Allies in Estonia represented an excellent opportunity to develop interoperability.
“It’s always an excellent experience to participate in NATO exercises,” he said. “We’re able to exchange tactics, techniques, and procedures with other forces. Our participation in both Exercise Spring Storm 2023 and the follow-up (command post exercise) let us share expertise for employing airmobile forces with the EDF. Mutual exchange of knowledge and expertise is one of the greatest strengths of NATO and something I find personally and professionally enjoyable.”
The relationships and shared experiences are mutually beneficial. While the U.S. troops are rotated on a bi-lateral agreement with the Estonian government, they have had the opportunity to train closely with 2nd Estonian Brigade, which assisted in developing standard operating procedures, processes, and structure for the Estonian Defense Forces. Likewise, American units continue to learn from their Estonian counterparts and integrate lessons from serving in Estonia into their processes, tactics, and procedures for operating with NATO allies and mechanized vehicle formations.
“Partnering with the 2nd Estonian Brigade provided us the opportunity to learn from their systems and processes, and replicate some of their capabilities to increase our own lethality,” said Maj. Chris Cummings, the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry’s executive officer. “For example, we created a mobile command post, based off of our observations of the Estonian Forward Command Post vehicle to increase our survivability and mobility in the field.”
During the unit’s time in Estonia, the U.S. troops enjoyed learning about Estonian customs and culture, trying Estonian food, and taking in the sites of Tartu, Tallinn and many other Estonian communities. The Soldiers enjoyed riding scooters throughout the town of Võru, water activities at Lake Tamula, and playing volleyball on the beach, among other activities.
Red Currahee’s time in Estonia marked the latest chapter in the long history of alliance and friendship between the United States and Estonia. The two nations established diplomatic relations in 1922 following Estonia’s declaration of independence during the First World War, and maintained relations even during the illegal occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991. The U.S. government recognized the Estonian diplomatic mission as the legal representative of the Republic of Estonia, and that recognition of the legal continuity of the Republic of Estonia has been one of the cornerstones of U.S.-Estonia relations.
Those ties only deepened during Red Currahee’s time in Estonia.
The battalion concluded its time in Estonia with a ceremony during which Soldiers received Estonian “NATO Kaitsel” (Defender) medals to recognize their service and commitment to securing NATO’s Eastern Flank in Estonia. The Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur and senior Estonian Defense Forces Leadership presented the medals.
When Red Currahee departed in November, a sister battalion also from the 101st Airborne Division replaced them – 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, or “Rakkasans,” who will write the next chapter in the continued alliance and partnership between the two nations.
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