MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania -- Nearly 40 years ago, murals depicting the glory of the Soviet military were freshly painted at the Novo Selo training area in Bulgaria. Today, nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War they are flaking, subdued images of a bygone era. Now, artificial thunder echoes through the hills as a Bulgarian M1117 Guardian armored security vehicle runs the training course, mowing down targets with fire from its mounted heavy machine gun.
The son of a Walla Walla man is faced with these reminders of the Cold War and the difficulties of conducting U.S. Army business in a foreign nation, as a member of Joint Task Force -- East, a multinational task force designed to make stronger allies of Romania and Bulgaria. The operation hones the skills of soldiers from all three nations as well as helping the people living in some of the poorest areas of the two European countries.
Army Pfc. Chris B. Conway, son of Dennis Conway of Walla Walla, is an infantryman with the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany, and is currently deployed to Bulgaria to support the task force, based at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania.
"I'm here training with Bulgarian soldiers so we can all be better trained for future deployments," said the 2005 Waitsburg High School graduate. "I'm also a representative of my country to my foreign counterparts."
Soldiers from all three countries trained together in individual and company-level movements as well as with armored vehicles, a variety of weapons and combat lifesaving skills. They also practiced the coordination needed to go into and clear a hostile urban area. In addition to the training, the soldiers took time to visit a number of local villages and allowed children to explore the vehicles they were using.
"We're learning a lot of different tactics from the Bulgarians," said Conway, who has been in the Army for a year. "It's a great opportunity to learn and teach our foreign counterparts."
Military training wasn't the only reason American service members were in Romania and Bulgaria. A group of doctors and nurses traveled to several villages around the training bases in both countries.
The team worked with local health care workers and translators to provide screenings for optical and other general health concerns. There was also a team of Navy Seabees helping renovate and upgrade local schools and medical facilities.
In spite of the language barrier and cultural differences the U.S. soldiers and their Bulgarian or Romanian counterparts were usually able to get their messages across.
"The language barrier can be difficult and it's definitely harder training somewhere that you don't know the area as well," said Conway. "I'm learning a lot out here though, so it's all worth it."