PLOVDIV, Bulgaria —
When most people imagine the U.S. Army National Guard, they might think of Soldiers responding to domestic disasters, Guardsmen cradling a child through waist-deep flood waters, or blazing through blizzards in HUMVEE’s. What isn’t typically seen are the pivotal roles Green Berets and Soldiers of the Army’s 19th and 20th Special Forces Groups (Airborne) play in special operations around the world.
These groups make up two of the seven Army Special Forces Groups. Their battalions, companies and teams come from across the U.S. From June 10-21 this year, they worked across Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, providing the core Army Special Operations contribution to U.S. Special Operations Command Europe’s Trojan Footprint 19.
Trojan Footprint is an annual SOCEUR-led exercise that brings together U.S., Allied and partner SOF from across Europe. This year’s exercise included 1,400 SOF and armed forces from ten Allied and partner nations training over land, sea, and air across Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and the Black Sea.
“Trojan Footprint provided a great venue for our battalion to deploy and train on our mission essential tasks alongside our Allies and partners in Europe,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Andrew Chandler, the commander of 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne). “The interoperability and shared lessons learned across the Joint and Multinational spectrum are key to maintaining our collective readiness.”
Although many of these countries have trained for years together in Europe, or deployed together in Iraq or Afghanistan, each exercise still provides another chance for individual teams and SOF to build interoperability.
“In the beginning, the different SOF teams were operating as two different elements but as we progress, you start to see them come together more and more as the bigger picture becomes clearer, and they realize it’s actually possible to function as one unit,” said a Special Forces medic staff sgt. assigned to 19th SFG (A), who served as a special warfare trainer for the exercise.
SOF and conventional forces from Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, the Republic of North Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the U.S took part in this year’s exercise, the first time it’s been held in the Black Sea Region.
“It was difficult for the teams because they didn’t really know each other, but this exercise has started breaking down those barriers so they can start to trust each other,” said a Bulgarian SOF senior officer. “I’ve already started to see the relationships build and it’s only the beginning. It all starts here.”
At the conclusion of a fast rope insertion in which Bulgarian, Ukrainian and U.S. SOF rapidly assaulted an objective via helicopters from the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), the Bulgarian officer pointed out a U.S. and a Bulgarian soldier shaking hands and laughing together, and said, “See, you can see the relationships start here.”
The fast rope insertion was just one of the many advanced tactical training events the multinational teams performed throughout the exercise. They participated in events including air assaults, military free fall operations, maritime insertions, and close quarters combat.
In addition to the skill, practice, and years of training these events normally require, these combined teams overcame language barriers while learning the nuances of each other’s techniques.
“Success isn’t a metric in this case, it’s that the teams trained, learned, grew, expanded, and actually got something out of it,” said a communications sgt. 1st class assigned to 19th SFG (A).
In Bulgaria, the 19th SFG (A) Soldiers acted as the training facilitators, while the 20th SFG (A) Soldiers were the operational unit on the ground training with their Bulgarian and Ukrainian counterparts. In Romania, their roles were reversed so that Special Forces teams from both groups were able to work with Allies and partners.
In Hungary, training provided the opportunity for 19th SFG (A) Special Forces Soldiers from Colorado to again work with Slovenian SOF, with whom Colorado has maintained a State Partnership Program since 1993.
“The relationship between Colorado and Slovenia by way of the SPP is one of the oldest,” said Chandler. “For many of us we have grown up together with our partners often serving together in training, exercises, combat, and even attending service colleges together. It often feels like a family vacation to see relatives as we try to catch up on the most current stories of our friends and formations. This relationship demonstrates the significance of known partnerships before the need or a crisis arises. Our ability to rapidly assemble and integrate into multinational exercises demonstrates the collective readiness we have built over decades.”
However, despite which role, country, or team was involved, the operators echoed the same sentiment.
“Training like this is helpful and helps us meet today’s challenges in this region,” said a Romanian SOF soldier. “What we are doing here is unconventional warfare and this is what we do these days.”
In contrast to their active-duty counterparts, National Guard Special Forces bring a different experience to exercises and operations.
“Being a Guard Soldier is unique because the 19th and 20th Group Soldiers work in civilian organizations the majority of the time,” said a 20th Group company operations warrant officer. “They hold jobs such as physician assistants, police officers, fire fighters, and work in the corporate world. Their everyday experiences in those positions bring different perspectives for problem solving during these exercises and deployments.”
For SOCEUR, the integration of National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve special operations capabilities are critical.
“Trojan Footprint is just one example of the work Special Forces Soldiers from the 19th and 20th Special Forces Groups contribute daily to our efforts in Europe,” said U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bruce Holmes, SOCEUR’s senior enlisted leader and a career Special Forces Soldier. “I’m continually impressed by their professionalism and the unique capability they bring, whether competing and deterring in Europe, or in combat operations.”