Operation provides training, builds relationships

by Airman 1st Class Tony R. Ritter

The 86th Contingency Response Group and 37th Airlift Squadron teamed with Bulgarian Armed Forces for Operation Thracian Spring March 6 to 17 at Bezmer

Air Base, Bulgaria.

The third annual cooperative endeavor facilitates the opportunity for U.S. forces to train and interact with their Bulgarian counterparts.

The exercise gave participants critical training, knowledge and a renewed focus on human interoperability.

It also demonstrated the air and land capabilities of participating units in an environment where they could work together.

“We are here for the opportunity to learn from the U.S. Armed Forces’ experience in military activities. Bulgaria is a comparatively new member of NATO, and here we have the chance to learn from one of its most experienced members,” said Bulgarian Air Force Col. Dimitar Aleksiev Danev, Bezmer Air Base commander. “We also gain the creation of friendships and have the opportunity to develop more understanding of each other’s habits and customs.”

The planning and logistics of an exercise of this magnitude is no easy task and requires plenty of time, cooperation and expertise.

“We have spent months planning this exercise and plenty of people have put their heads and hands together to make it possible. The cooperation we’ve received from U.S. Air Forces in Europe and the Bulgarian government has been fantastic,” said Maj. Michael Sheldon, 86th Operation Support Squadron chief of theater exercises and exercise lead planner.

Operation Thracian Spring pressed forward with Bulgarian Air Forces security and base support personnel and more than 145 U.S. Air Force flyers, maintainers, medics, security forces and planners.

The exercise facilitated nine jumps in which 45 paratroopers from the 68th Bulgarian Special Forces Brigade were able to jump and train alongside U.S. paratroopers from the Air Force’s 786th Security Forces Squadron and the Army’s 5th Quartermaster Company.

Included in the training schedule were more than 60 cargo drops and night vision goggle training, which was an opportunity unique to Bulgaria.

“Being in Bulgaria for this exercise provides an environment where our guys are able to operate under unique conditions, and this area presents training opportunities that are unique within the European theater,” said Lt. Col. John Krystyniak, 86th Operations Group exercise commander. “Getting the chance to interact with our Bulgarian counterparts and experience the local culture is also a major part of this operation.”

“We were able to execute five static lines and four HALO (high altitude, low opening) jumps in all. These jumps were a perfect opportunity for U.S. and Bulgarian paratroopers to train and interact,” said Maj. David Morgan, 37th Airlift Squadron exercise operations mission commander and C-130 Hercules pilot.

The training opportunities were not restricted to the skies; many of them took place on the ground as well.

“We have enjoyed the weather, the scenery and the Bulgarian people,” said Airman 1st Class Phillip Bean, 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief. “On an operational level, we have had the unique benefit here of being able to do the night vision goggle training as the airfield isn’t well lit.”

The human interoperability between the Bulgarian and U.S. forces was another key focus of the exercise.

“Every year we have progressed more toward focusing on human interoperability during the exercise,” Major Sheldon said. “It was something that we wanted and something that the Bulgarians had asked for.”

With that in mind, exercise organizers planned a community service-based orphanage visit and employed local translators to facilitate ice breaker socials throughout the exercise.

“Bringing translators to the team and planning these socials are a few ways in which we’ve tried to cultivate this human interoperability,” Major Sheldon said.

“As we train with the U.S. and other nations, we discover that our techniques and equipment are usually very similar,” said Lt. Col. Petko Petkov, 68th Bulgarian Special Forces Brigade chief of training and paratrooper. “As we interact with them, we have found that our personal differences are quite small as well.”

Operation Thracian Spring successfully provided another opportunity for U.S. forces to share their training knowledge and techniques with their foreign counterparts while extending their human spirit to build international relations.

“This was a great pleasure and a great opportunity for us. It’s good that we have the chance to interact and train with the Americans and their equipment,” Colonel Petkov said. “This kind of exercise prepares us for a moment when we may have to operate together somewhere in the world.”