SIBENIK, Croatia -- One of the oldest amphibious warships in the U.S. Navy and the unit that made history last year when they became the first U.S. peacekeeping force to move into Kosovo, completed the first ever U.S./Croatian bilateral military training exercise Sept. 29.
The four-day exercise gave members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and USS Austin a chance to cross-train with members of the Croatian Armed Forces in military strategy, tactics, weapons and equipment.
According to Army Maj. Richard B. Liebl, Chief for the Office of Defense Cooperation for the U.S. Embassy in Croatia, exercises like these are becoming a more common occurrence for military forces around the globe.
"The only way to be effective in the future of warfare is to build that bilateral exchange among willing nations," he said. "[Knowing your allies] enhances any country's ability to operate."
The exercise began when Croatian officers boarded USS Austin to learn how Navy and Marine Corps officials plan and execute combat missions. This planning produced a joint amphibious assault near the Croatian island of Zirje. Battalion Landing Team 2/2's Golf Company conducted this landing from their rubber Combat Rigid Raider Crafts (CRRCs) while several platoons of Croatian soldiers flew overhead in CH-46E "Sea Knight" and MI-8 Croatian helicopters. Also supporting Golf Company's attack boats were MiG-21 fighters and a Croatian missile ship.
According to Capt. Kenneth Kassner, Golf Company Commander, once the objective ashore had been captured, the Marines and Croatian soldiers began their first phase of cross training.
"We focused initially on platoon-size attacks," said the San Antonio, Texas, native. "We showed them what we do and they showed us what they do."
The meat of the classes came when the Croatians taught the Marines about mine warfare.
In 1991, Croatia entered a bloody war against the Yugoslav Army for their independence. Mine warfare was a common tactic used during the battles, giving the Croatian service members first-hand experience with the lethal devices. It was this first-hand experience Kassner said he found most useful.
"They showed us how mines were wired, placed and how to detect them," he said. "When they fought their war they had very little money for detection equipment. The point man would gingerly hold a stick at arms length. When the stick would hit a trip wire they would locate the mine and salvage it for future use."
While Kassner's Marines were learning about mines, MEU Service Support Group 26 was beginning the second portion of the cross training exercise at a Croatian weapons range. There, Marines and Sailors had an opportunity to learn about and fire weapons used by Croatia's military, such as the AK-47 assault rifle and M-84 machine gun. In turn, the Croatians were given a chance to learn about and fire some of the Marine Corp's weapons, such as the M-16 A2 service rifle and the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon.
"Shooting the American weapons was an awesome experience," said Croatian Army 1stSgt. Slavko Cvitkovic, a veteran of the war that won Croatia their independence. "I've shot weapons from all over the world, and the American weapons were some of the best."
For example, Cvitkovik said he thought the AK-47 provided more power, but the M-16 A2 offered better accuracy.
The exercise concluded after Golf Company and their Croatian counterparts moved into the weapons range with MSSG-26 to cross train with the different weapons.
Officials on both sides said they consider the training evolution a success.
"The Marines and Sailors [of the 26th MEU(SOC) and USS Austin] have been a part of history here," said Maj. Kenneth Lassure, MSSG-26 Executive Officer. "It excites me. It gets me juices going to know that we're helping a country move into a democratic direction."
Croatia is a member of NATO's Partnership For Peace, and is seeking full membership in the alliance.
Croatian Army Major Zoran Smoljo said he hopes this is exercise is only the beginning of a U.S./Croatian military relationship.
"Everyone knows the American military is number one," said the Croatian commander. "To train with them is really useful. The Croatian Army has experience we gained during the war. The American military has great training and equipment.
"I would like to learn more about how the Marines are trained. I would like to see how they make a professional military."
If the excitement of the Marines and Sailors who just completed the historic training is any indication, this will not be the last time the U.S. and Croatian militaries find themselves training side-by-side.