The heat sank into my skin as I crossed the threshold of the safe, climate-controlled plane, and into Thailand. More than 200 Soldiers and I de-boarded the plane into the country. The Soldiers from 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team were part of several military units sent on the annual mission known as Pacific Pathways, an exercise held between February to April, 2016.
The exercise is meant to build inter-country cohesion between the United States and its allies in the Pacific. This year the countries included Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines. The mission was three months long and the U.S. Army would cross train with the respective countries' armies and experience the culture of each nation.
This wasn't a normal training mission though. The feeling in the air was we, as Soldiers, were representing the United States of America. The next few months were filled with hardships for soldiers of each nation, but there were times when we would bridge the gaps of our cultures to find common ground and become brothers in arms.
During a training event, I sat off to the side of a range and tried to set up a good photo while the sniper section of the Reconnaissance Platoon, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 1-2 SBCT, cross-trained with the snipers of the Royal Thai Army. Several days were spent with the snipers to teach fundamentals, weapons care and advanced shooting techniques. Each sniper team consisted of an American sniper and two Thai snipers.
At the end of a few days, there was a sniper competition between the teams. The man who shot the best that day was from the Thai army. There were hugs and handshakes as the proud snipers all shared a moment with each other.
I noticed one of our Soldiers, Spc. Jeremy Degroot, a sniper with HHC, 2-3 Inf., had golden tiger patch on his bag that I had never seen before. I asked him where he got it. He said “In the Thai Army it represents the best soldier on post. Well, the best soldier and I had a pull up competition, and I beat him by one. So he gave it to me.”
February 11, 2016 - U.S. Army Spc. Jeremy Degroot, a Soldier with 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, instructs a Royal Thai Army soldier about weapons maintenance at Lop Buri, Thailand. Thailand was the first destination for the Soldiers of 1-2 SBCT as they conduct Operation Pacific Pathways, an annual exercise the U.S. military conducts with its allies in the Pacific. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Loren Keely)
Later I was lying in my bunk and storm winds blowing open the door to where I slept, I tried to remember that good feeling I experienced earlier. Those soldiers had clearly bridged the gap between regular army life and friendship. This feeling was hard to keep it into context when I was so far away from home. I was trying to balance being somewhere foreign, working all-day and appreciating the unique opportunity that I was getting by just being there.
By the time I was getting on the plane to South Korea, I was missing the camaraderie I had built with our Thai counterparts. The people of Thailand made a huge impression on me.
South Korea was a completely different scenario from Thailand. For one, it was cold; for two, there were already U.S. Army posts where we went. The training was amazing. I saw many iterations of U.S. and Republic of Korea Soldiers learning to assault buildings, conduct gunneries, and perform medical evacuations.
As training started to wind down, I witnessed a gesture of camaraderie: a platoon from 2-3 Inf. presented a soldier from the Republic of Korea with a plaque and said he would always have a place within their platoon. They gave a speech and the Korean soldier did the same. It was emotional and heartfelt. There was melancholy in the words that soon meant we would all leave that place soon.
March 15, 2016 - A Republic of Korea soldiers from the ROK army 137th Infantry, and U.S. Soldiers from 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, load a casualty into a black hawk as part of medical evacuation training at Rodriguez Live Fire Complex, South Korea. The Soldiers of 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team conducted combined hoist and medevac training with the Soldiers of 3-25 Aviation Battalion and ROK soldiers as part of Operation Pacific Pathways. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Loren Keely)
During the last week and a half, I was able to visit downtown Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and take in the many amazing cultural experiences that that city had to offer. The people fascinated me; I have never been around another group of people who showed such a huge work ethic.
The Philippines was the last country on our tour. We had less time to spend there, but we still had a lot of training to accomplish. There was Small Arms Marksmanship, jungle training, a big air assault mission and smaller projects along the way.
One of the projects was a school renovation. The school had small classrooms that would flood when it rained, which severely hindered education. Soldiers From Company B, 2-3 Inf., went to this school and dug a trench to divert water away from the classrooms.
There is one thing I found out about this entire operation; the training is great, but the relationships are amazing. Seeing Soldiers help schoolchildren is what makes this job worth it.
April 9, 2016 - A soldier with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and a U.S. Soldier with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, help dig a trench for a local school in the Philippines. This was part of Balikatan 2016, which is an annual bilateral training exercise between U.S. and Armed Forces of the Philippine that promotes regional stability and security. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Loren Keely)
I cannot list the many amazing experiences that I and other Soldiers had during this exercise. During our final flight back to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., a Soldier recalled the jungle training he had been through and spoke of how he drank cobra blood and killed a pig for sustenance. He spoke about this moment fondly and with respect.
Thinking back on it all, there were so many memories. In Thailand there was a man who brought me food every day because for an hour I talked with him about life. In Korea I watched the people and admired the hard work that they put into everything. Finally, in the Philippians I admired the fighting spirit and the training their soldiers had.
Pacific Pathways was a success because operations like this are meant to build relationships between different groups of people. Our Soldiers not only grew in knowledge and experience within their Army professions, but also grew as individuals. More importantly, they grew along side their fellow soldiers from our allied countries.
If something were to happen in the world and we needed to fight alongside one of these great nations, we would be more prepared than ever with our current knowledge and the understanding of the region and its people. We made friends and built long-lasting relationships in every country we visited; if I ever get a chance to go on this exercise again, I know those friends are still there waiting for me.
By U.S. Army Spc. Loren Keely
Provided through DVIDS
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