Estonian Soldiers Help Armor Unit Protect Supply Routes
By Sgt. David Foley, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Mar. 11, 2005 The Army is minimizing the risks involved in delivering supplies to soldiers in Iraq through a joint operation that includes soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., and a platoon of Estonian infantrymen.
Estonian Cpl. Eiko Oim and Peeter Heinsaar from the Scouts Battalion, Estonian Defense Forces, Estonian Peacekeeping Center, walk past an Iraqi wedding party in Gazalia March 4. A platoon of Estonian soldiers is working with soldiers from 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y., as part of Multinational Corps Iraq to secure a 15-kilometer section of road in western Baghdad. They are stationed at Camp Victory, Iraq. Photo by Sgt. David Foley, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The two units work together keeping each other safe while patrolling Gazalia village, a 15-kilometer section of road in the heart of western Baghdad that is known to be a hot spot for improvised explosive devices.
The American tank company -- Company C, 2nd Battalion, 70th Armor Regiment, part of Task Force 141, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division -- doesn't have any light infantry soldiers, so it relies on the Estonians to provide security for their tanks. In turn, the company provides "heavy" security for the Estonians.
"It's not too easy to cordon and search with a bunch of tanks," said Capt. Jade Hinman, Company C commander. "To have a group of Estonians who are good at what they do is like having a plate of brownies to myself.
"It is an honor and a privilege to work with coalition soldiers," he said. "It is great to have another country who works so well with us."
Hinman said he sometimes is the butt of jokes because many American soldiers have never heard of Estonia and say it is a mythical country. But, he said, the Estonian soldiers are some of the best he's seen.
"I'd stack them up with any infantry platoon I've ever seen," he said. "I'm not getting a second-rate team; I'm getting first-rate soldiers."
Sgt. Michael Fragassi works directly with the Estonian soldiers on the ground and said he was impressed to see their capabilities.
"I expected them to show up with outdated Russian surplus equipment, but they are very well equipped," he said. "They have the same night vision (equipment) as us; they carry Israeli manufactured Galils, which are basically the best parts of an AK-47 and an M16 put together; and they are very well-trained.
"They are awesome," he said. "Outstanding soldiers. I'd put them on par with our rangers as far as their training and weapons are concerned."
Estonian Army Capt. Neeme Brus, a media relations officer with Multinational Corps Iraq, said Estonia knows the value of freedom and the need to fight terrorism here, before the fight ends up in their own back yard.
Estonia has 35 soldiers in Iraq, and about 140 of the country's soldiers have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Brus said that may seem like a small number, but in a country smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined, with a population of less than 1.5 million people, they have made a major contribution.
Estonia's participation in OIF has not come without sacrifice. Two Estonian soldiers gave their lives, and 10 others have been wounded in action.
Despite the high casualty percentage, Brus said the Estonians are aware of the cost of freedom, after being under communist rule for 50 years. The country gained independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union.
While many coalition countries offer support strictly through logistics or engineering, Estonian soldiers are on the ground patrolling neighborhoods and searching for weapons and insurgent hideouts.
"We are a small but effective part of the (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)," Brus said.
The Estonian parliament is preparing to vote in March on continuing their involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the outcome will be known shortly thereafter.
"The public opinion in Estonia about our participation here is almost 50-50," Brus said. "But the Estonian soldiers hope the parliament will extend the Estonian mission in OIF. We have to prove that we are capable military partners for Americans and other nations in the coalition. We want to be considered as a serious nation when it comes to international security."
(Army Sgt. David Foley is assigned to Multinational Corps Iraq public affairs.)