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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Romanian Soldiers Stand United with Americans in Iraq

From friendly contests to focused missions, coalition forces learn from each other.

By Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary)

LOGISTICAL SUPPORT AREA ADDER, Iraq, May 15, 2007 — There are differences in uniform, equipment and language, but to members of the Romanian Army’s 495th Infantry Battalion and their coalition partners, the similarities among troops are more important.

The Romanian paratrooper unit patrols certain areas in southern Iraq, provides a quick reaction force for British Explosive Ordinance Disposal units and maintains a safe route for convoys 24 hours a day.

While the soldiers are trained in airborne operations, scuba diving and climbing, they are “just infantry guys” during their missions in Iraq, their commander, Lt. Col. George Constantin said. Their paratrooper status has helped them bond with the 82nd Sustainment Brigade, but overall he sees troops from both armies in the same light.

“I don’t see boundaries between Americans and Romanians,” Constantin said. Their efforts have gained the respect of many U.S. soldiers, who provide additional equipment and training to the unit stationed at Logistical Support Area Adder.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael E. Proctor of Jacksonville, Fla., a senior maintenance adviser with the 546th Maintenance Company, said he enjoyed working with the Romanians when he recently taught Humvee maintenance to more than 50 of them.

“I’m pretty impressed with them,” Proctor said, noting the Romanians were eager students who constantly asked questions about the unfamiliar vehicle. The southeastern European country has participated in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom since their beginnings. Currently, there are nearly 600 Romanian soldiers serving throughout Iraq, with a majority of those at the Tallil base, according to their spokesman, Lt. Dorian Constantin Balan.

The Romanian army takes part in numerous training exercises with the American military every year and many of the soldiers know basic or intermediate English, he said. Balan himself learned English through a training program at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

“We have a special partnership with the U.S.,” he said.

Although the Romanian men and women serve under British forces at LSA Adder, many Americans have worked to forge connections with the paratrooper unit. Maj. Lisa Munday, the plans and effects branch chief for the 365th Corps Support Battalion of Hattiesburg, Miss., said she started working with the Romanians to help provide the Humvee training.

She was also looking for ways to improve life on the base, so she organized a soccer tournament among various coalition forces, including the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, the Romanian army, the British army, the Ugandan security forces and the Australian army.

“Initially, it was going to be just one tournament,” she said. Instead, the game has become a Sunday ritual at the Romanian camp inside LSA Adder. Variations on physical training uniforms substitute for team colors, with the exception of teams such as the Australians, who brought soccer jerseys with them to Iraq.

Cpl. Mihai Gancea, a Romanian soldier, was preparing for the American-Romanian match, except he was suiting up to play on the United States team. He said he found Americans to be very friendly and any preconceptions have gone away as he’s gotten to know them.

“We are all here for the same thing, so we have to be united,” Gancea said. “They are the same as us.”

This equality doesn’t extend to everything. He said while the Americans might be victorious if they were playing their version of football, those skills don’t necessarily translate to a mastery of European football.

“I don’t know if they can beat us at soccer,” he said, smiling.

Lt. Delman J. Hafermann of Waverly, Iowa , a liaison officer for 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, was one of the Americans competing on the field. He said he enjoys playing against the Romanians and the good-natured competition works both ways.

“We tell them Americans can beat Romanians any day,” Hafermann said. This time, however, the Romanians earned a 3-1 victory over their American counterparts. Munday, who took part in a volleyball game with the Romanians the same day, said she enjoys seeing the interaction between the different countries. Munday, who is from Fuquay-Varina, N.C. , said her new friends have refused to teach her any Romanian, because they want to practice their English. She also noted their discipline, stating they do physical training five times a week.

“They have such huge hearts. They’ll do anything for you,” Munday said. “If we
stay in our little cliques, we miss a chance to get to know each other.”

The Romanians have had several chances to learn from U.S. troops. Many participated in a Combat Lifesaver course taught by the 82nd Sustainment Brigade in February and there are plans to conduct a joint mass casualty exercise in the near future.

“It is very important that we do these exercises together,” Lt. Macau Florin commander of the Romanian medical platoon, said. “We cannot afford mistakes in this.”

There are a few other differences. While the names attached to some military camps can be obscure, it’s pretty clear where the namesake of the 495th encampment comes from. The large bat painted on the concrete wall outside the camp is one clue.

“They call it Camp Dracula to scare the enemy,” Balan, the spokesman, said with a smile. The Romanians are also involved in their own civil affairs projects, including the planned rebuilding of a nearby Iraqi school, he said.

The Romanians also face their own dangers. Recently, members of an American convoy helped alert the soldiers stationed at a checkpoint about a suspicious vehicle in the area, Lt. Benone Bodoc, a Romanian platoon commander, said. The vehicle was later prevented from approaching the checkpoint.

“They are always willing to help us,” Bodoc said of the U.S. convoys.

The Romanians constantly scan the area and the traffic for trouble. They also stay alert for dangers, including improvised explosive devices, during their own convoys.

“We have to know it’s a war and we have to pay attention to everything; not just one thing,” Cpl. Mihai Gancea said while on security duty.

The 495th arrived in February, just a month after their military did away with its draft, Romanian officials said. All the soldiers currently here volunteered to come to Iraq . The Romanian commander said each will do his best to accomplish the mission.

“We are honored to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the American Army and we want to be all the time in the same situation,” Constantin said. “Our place is here with NATO soldiers.”

Photo Caption: Lt. Sorin Lungu (right), with the Romanian Army’s 495th Infantry Battalion, makes a kick during a soccer game with American soldiers. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte

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