POTI, Georgia -- An opening ceremony held here two weeks ago marked the start of Cooperative Partner '01, a NATO/Partnership for Peace exercise in which 14 nations participated. Dignitaries, military units, crowds of onlookers, and media representatives attended the event. The exercise was aimed at increasing interoperability among participating forces, especially in the area of humanitarian assistance operations.
"This was a historic event," said LtCol John Lopez, of New York City, commanding officer, MEU Service Support Group-24, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. "We were part of the first NATO forces ever to land in Georgia."
"The exercise was an excellent opportunity to train to our mission. We achieved a high level of humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and peace support interoperability, which was a fairly ambitious goal, given all the countries represented."
Georgia, a former Soviet republic, is located on the Black Sea. Independent since 1991, the country has made an effort to develop a market-based economy over the past decade. The current Georgian president, Eduard Shevernadze, was the Soviet foreign minister under Gorbachev. He was a major influence in bringing the annual exercise to his country. Last year, Cooperative Partner was held in the Ukraine.
While Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union come to terms with the realities of capitalism, NATO's influence in the region is widely recognized. The government of Georgia has embraced the organization and expressed an interest in becoming more involved in its activities. The Partnership for Peace program emerged in 1994 as a way meeting this need, which is shared by several other Eurasian countries.
For many, the idea of U.S. and NATO troops conducting maneuvers in Georgia would have seemed unlikely even a few years ago. The overwhelmingly positive response to the exercise and the troops participating in it, however, is a strong indicator of the country's current mindset.
For the 24th MEU (SOC), initial planning for the exercise began seven months ago.
"Planning for Cooperative Partner was initially challenging because of language and cultural barriers," said MSgt Roy Dickison, of Muncie, Ind., Operations Chief, MSSG-24.
"In the end, though, it all worked out and the execution was successful. We moved over 1,000 troops and a significant amount of cargo in bad weather over deteriorated roads without missing a single run and with no incidents. The Georgians played a big role in this. LtCol Moroz, a Georgian officer, and I worked together on a lot of these issues," he said.
Marines and Sailors of the 24th MEU(SOC) embarked on USS Ponce participated in cross-training with troops from several other nations in infantry tactics, medical procedures, landmine awareness, search and rescue techniques, and amphibious doctrine.
In addition, live fire and demolitions work allowed troops from different countries to become familiar with weapons and munitions they had not worked with before.
"Training with other forces was a good experience," said Cpl Anthony Farina, of Santa Claus, Ind., a small craft mechanic with Golf Company, Battalion Landing Team 2/8.
"The other countries benefited from what we had to offer and we had an opportunity to improve our relations with their troops," he said.
Farina also commented on the city of Poti.
"The people were happy to see us," he said. "Parts of the city were diminished, which gave us an appreciation for the things we have as Americans."
The culmination of the 12-day exercise occurred with the establishment of a humanitarian assistance site in response to a notional earthquake requiring the concerted efforts of the multi-national force.
A tour by a group of distinguished visitors, including Georgia's minister of defense and ADM James Ellis, commander in chief, Allied Forces Southern Europe and U.S. Naval Forces Europe, capped the exercise. The tour allowed the visitors and a group of international media representatives to observe the interoperability and cooperation developed during the exercise.
In addition to the United States and Georgia, countries participating in Cooperative Partner '01 included Bulgaria, Romania, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Turkey, Azerbaijan, the United Kingdom, France, Greece, the Ukraine, and Italy. Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross also participated.
The Directing Staff for the exercise was composed mainly of personnel from NATO headquarters in Southern Europe, located in Naples, Italy.
"This is a very important exercise for us," said Zurab Andjaparidze, of Tbilisi, Georgia, press center chief for the Georgian Ministry of Defense.
"It will help promote peace and friendship, as well as a better understanding of how different countries' militaries operate."
This sentiment was echoed by Tamara Zaalishvili, a leading radio journalist in Georgia who specializes in military and governmental affairs.
"This is another step toward integration with the European structure, economically, militarily, socially, and politically," she said.
"Georgians like this. They want an umbrella for security."
Members of the Georgian military agree.
"People from Georgia and NATO can get closer to each other this way," said 1stLt David Tsintsadze, who serves in the Georgian Army.
The spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding was common among service members from other participating nations, as well.
"I enjoyed this exercise," said 2ndLt Gurkan Uzunali, a platoon commander in the Turkish Army.
"I learned NATO terminology, exercise planning, and task organization during my time here."
Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-266 (Reinforced), based at New River Air Station, N.C., was the main provider of air assets to the multi-national force.
The Aviation Combat Element detachment embarked on USS Ponce consists of three CH-46 "Sea Knight" and three UH-1N "Huey" helicopters, along with their pilots, crews, maintainers, and flight line personnel. The ACE detachment is commanded by LtCol Richard Preble, of Milan, IN.
"It was interesting to see the condition of the Georgian air facilities after the departure of the Soviets," said Capt Ted Mullin, of Allentown, Penn., a UH-1N pilot.
"It demonstrates the Georgians' need for assistance."
Speaking of the training value of the exercise, Mullin added, "Anytime you get a chance to fly in a new environment, your situational awareness improves."
"We had some real-world constraints here that we wouldn't see back home," he said.
Communications during the exercise were a special concern, given the various languages and procedures used by participating forces.
"The fact that this was a NATO/Partnership for Peace exercise made it easier," said LCpl Ryan Flynn, of Bowling Green, Mo., a radio operator with the MEU's Command Element.
"English is the standard language for NATO and their radio protocol is very similar to ours."
Flynn and his fellow Marines ensured that communications functioned smoothly during the exercise by, among other things, establishing a radio re-transmission site.
In the end, 24th MEU (SOC) Marines and Sailors from all backgrounds and occupational specialties came together to ensure the exercise's success.
Cooperative Partner's main goal was to increase interoperability among participating forces. In the context of achieving this, a much greater interface occurred.
The exercise impacted not only how the countries involved view each other on a macro level, it also influenced individual perceptions in everyone who participated in Cooperative Partner.
In short, the exercise was appropriately named.
Follow the 24th MEU (SOC) deployment on their website at www.usmc.mil/24meu.