International training teaches service members 'a soldier is a soldier'

30 Sep 2000 | Cpl. Derek A. Shoemake

Croatia's Peruca Dam says a lot about the country where a once nonexistent military, armed with inadequate hunting rifles, battled their way to independence through Europe's 4th largest military.

Even before the war began in 1991, the Yugoslav Army warned that any aggressive action by Croatia would prompt the superior force to destroy the dam, bringing millions of liters of water from the Cetina River over the heads of the 50,000 Croatian citizens that resided on the other side.

When war erupted, the Yugoslav Army laced the Peruca Dam with more than enough explosives to make that threat an instant reality. Croatian Army 1stSgt. Slavko Cvitkovic remembers it well. He was one of the Croatian soldiers who scaled the dam in a five-day effort to defuse the bombs. There were some detonations, and though Cvitkovic lost some friends and fellow soldiers, their efforts saved the dam and the lives of the 50,000 people who lived in its shadows.

Cvitkovic said the story of the Peruca Dam is one of many from a war that turned a group of inexperienced men into a respectable and equipped military. It was one of the many stories imparted to Marines and Sailors from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and USS Austin during this first ever U.S./Croatian Military cross-training exercise.

The exercise offered the two militaries a chance to work side-by-side, learning about one another's tactics, organization and weapons. However, for service members like SSgt. Kurt Weeks, some of the best training came simply by learning about one another.

"They know how quickly all this can become real," said the shore party chief and Iron River, Mich. native with MEU Service Support Group 26. "I think sometimes, the Marines and Sailors here might not realize how possible it is that the unmarked van that pulls up alongside their post might be there to take them out. These guys know, from experience, about imminent threats. So they want to learn anything that will help them be a better military."

For the Croatians, many of those threats came in the form of explosives, like those implanted in the Peruca Dam. At the weapons range where the service members fired rifles and machine guns from one another's arsenal, yellow tape marked areas of no admittance. In these areas, a number of live mines still remain buried.

"Just by looking around you can see this is a military fresh from war," said Lance Cpl. Rodney Taylor, MSSG-26 personnel chief and Gilbert, S.C. native, pointing to a strand of that yellow tape draped between two trees. "When I think about war, I think about Vietnam or Korea, stuff that happened more than ten years before I was born.
When these guys think about war, they think about something that happened in their front yards a few years ago."

While the Marines and Sailors learned a great deal about warfare through Croatia's recent success in combat, some Croatian Soldiers said the U.S. offered a chance to learn about a military with a long history of successful combat.

"The Croatian [Military] is a good military, but a new one," said Croatian Army Maj. Zoran Smoljo. "Everything we learned we learned practically. The American military has perfected their methods through many tests on the battlefield."

Though old or new, GySgt. Timothy Weber, operations chief with MSSG-26 and Cincinnati, Ohio native said he learned certain strategies are timeless.

"I was talking to a group of Croatians about the Marine Corps' various combat formations," he said. "And it turns out they do many of their formations the same way."

The similarities between the two organizations separated by thousands of miles of earth extended beyond the battlefield.

Almost as soon as they saw one another, the Marines and Sailors were bartering back and forth with Croatian service members for patches, unit insignias and uniform items.

Among the more coveted items from the Croatians were the gold unit insignias worn on the hat of their camouflage uniform. The hot item from the Marines and Sailors was the camouflage utility cover, especially those with the Marine Corp's Eagle, Globe and Anchor on the front.

Corporal Matthew Robinson, landing support specialist and Huber Heights, Ohio native, was lucky enough to snag a gold unit insignia, along with some patches.
"I brought these with me to trade," he said, holding cloth lance corporal chevrons, the type sewn onto the Marine Corps' Class C uniform shirt. "They seem to be a popular item."

When each evening concluded, the Marines and Sailors would sit back amid the trading and swap stories with the Croatian service members. This surprised more than a few Croatians.

"When I heard we would be training with the U.S. Marine Corps, I thought we would see a bunch of men screaming and yelling at one another," said Croatian Army Private Boris Kovacek. "I thought they would run around everywhere doing push-ups.

"But when I look around I do not hear a lot of yelling. When the Marines finish their job, they sit back and talk. That's the same thing we do.

"I guess no matter where you go, a soldier is a soldier."