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Parachutes Ready: Next Stop Kazakstan

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3, 1997 – Three days shy of retiring, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Sheehan will once again lead by example.

The Atlantic Command commander in chief is slated to be first out of the plane when 500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division and 40 Central Asian troops leap into Kazakstan Sept. 15 for an exercise dubbed CENTRAZBAT '97.

Sheehan, a 35-year Marine Corps veteran, is demonstrating his support for the exercise by making the jump, said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Martin R. Berndt, Atlantic Command's director of exercises and joint training.

Sheehan and the troops are slated to leave Fort Bragg, N.C., Sept. 14 at 4:30 a.m. and fly nonstop nearly 8,000 miles in the web seats of six of the military's new C-17 transport planes. Two more C-17s will carry six humvees and other cargo. The aircraft will refuel in the air twice, near Gibraltar and the boot of Italy, Berndt said. Above their Central Asian drop zone, the U.S. paratroopers will take the plunge.

"This is a strategic airlift of airborne troops that has not been seen before," Berndt said. This will be the longest distance airborne operation ever completed, and it will be the first time a formation of C-17s is used for an airdrop deployment, he said.

The Central Asian Battalion, made up of troops from Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Krygyzstan, is hosting CENTRAZBAT '97 Sept. 15 to 21. The battalion formed in 1996 to create a regional security cooperation structure focused on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.

About 20 Central Asian Battalion troops traveled to Fort Bragg in August to go through jump school. Sheehan also attended routine refresher training there. The Central Asian troops will return home via the C-17s carrying their American counterparts. Two additional drops will follow their airdrop. About 40 Turkish and 40 Russian troops will also arrive direct from their home stations and parachute to the training site.

"Over the course of about two hours, you'll have 620 people from three nations descending on a single zone," Berndt said. "What the parachute does give you, along with a forcible entry capability, is the ability to get to places where perhaps you cannot land and offload troops."

During the first two days of the exercise, troops will practice such skills as controlling checkpoints, inspecting vehicles, providing humanitarian assistance, maintaining separation zones. All but 120 of the 82nd Airborne troops will return to the United States after completing Phase 1. The rest will move by ground transportation to Uzbekistan for training with troops from Latvia and Georgia.

CENTRAZBAT '97 is the first multinational training exercise conducted by the Central Asian Battalion. The battalion wants to train with other nations to learn each other's techniques, tactics and procedures, Berndt said.

"It's important to recognize that when we do these types of exercises with our allies, in addition to teaching, we learn a great deal," Berndt said. "We address interoperability issues. We talk about how each nation does their command and control. What type of equipment do they use? What are their tactics, techniques and procedures? How do ours meld with them?"

The goal is to prepare in advance, "so that if we are ever called to do a mission like this, we're not meeting people for the first time," he said. "The only way to get ready for peacekeeping operations is to go out and train."

Russian, Turkish, Georgian and Latvian troops are also set to participate in the exercise. Including the American contingent, about 1,400 troops will train together during the two-phase, six-day exercise. While the exercise is not a NATO Partnership for Peace exercise, it is conducted "in the spirit of the partnership," Berndt said.

"My personal experience with this type of exercise indicates that the troops -- the young enlisted men and women in these units who represent their country -- have no trouble communicating," Berndt said. "Even though there may be a language barrier, they seem to get along pretty well, and they're able to have not only a good time, but take something away -- not just about how they operate, but about their cultures as well."

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