More than 80 Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers deployed to Poland in May and June with the 732nd Combat Support Sustainment Battalion’s (CSSB) headquarters company to support Exercise Anakonda 16, a large-scale training event to integrate Polish national forces into an allied, joint multinational environment.
The 732nd distributed food, water and rations, managed the ammunition supply and supervised maintenance operations for Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area (DPTA) and Torun in western Poland. The 732nd also served as a relay between an active-duty brigade headquarters and subordinate support companies, and tracked equipment moving between training sites.
“I think there’d be a lot more confusion if we weren’t here,” said Spc. Samantha Barnum, a human resources specialist. “We’re kind of the middle man communicating between the units beneath us and headquarters. If we weren’t here, I think the units below us would struggle a little bit communicating with headquarters.”
One of the key outcomes for Anakonda 16 was not just for Polish forces to learn how to work with more than 31,000 service members from 24 participating nations, but for the active component of the U.S. Army to work with National Guard and Reserve units as part of the Total Force concept. The Wisconsin National Guard is the state’s first military responder, but it is also the nation’s primary combat reserve, and exercises such as Anakonda 16 allow the Wisconsin National Guard and other reserve component units to collaborate effectively with active duty peers.
"It was the total Army in Europe leading an effort, establishing a baseline for how to do future operations in Europe," said Brig. Gen. Arlan DeBlieck, deputy commanding general of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command and commanding general of the Army Reserve's 7th Mission Support Command. "All the components were heavily involved and were doing a superb job.
"You couldn't tell one component from another," DeBlieck added.
Lt. Col. Jelora Coman, 732nd CSSB commander, said one of the most useful lessons from Anakonda 16 was how to deploy a unit.
“During recent deployments, there has been considerable infrastructure to fall in on in theater,” she explained. “Therefore, many units did not take their rolling stock — enough supplies to self-support and whatever equipment was needed for the mission. For Anakonda 16, the 732nd took everything we needed from the vehicles we used and tents to MREs.
“The Soldiers learned about the unit movement process and procedures, such as how to prepare equipment for customs inspections and transport on ships,” Coman continued. “These are skills many units have not exercised in the past 10 years because of the developed infrastructure in theater.”
Sgt. Anthony Disterhaft, a food service specialist, was enjoying his first overseas trip and seeing how the active Army does its job.
“Learning new ideas how to prepare meals, how they run their rations compared to how we do ours,” Disterhaft said. “Overall this has been a great experience — I’ll be able to go back to my unit and pass this knowledge along to my younger troops, and my senior peers as well. This helps us perform as a complete team rather than three separate branches of the Army.”
Sgt. Kyle Fellinger, a combat medic with the Wisconsin Medical Detachment who supported the 732nd for this mission, was able to work directly with active duty counterparts in Poland during Anakonda 16. He was one of the medics working the drop zone June 7 for approximately 2,000 paratroopers from the United States, United Kingdom and Poland.
“It was a pretty long day, but it was cool to see,” Fellinger said. He received an Army Commendation Medal during his time supporting Anakonda 16.
“It’s been one of those experiences I’ll never forget,” he continued. “It’s been a great learning experience, during sick call and seeing some of the things I don’t normally see in the National Guard to the extent these guys deal with. It’s been pretty enlightening. I really got spread thin, and I got to experience a whole different side — not only physical health, but mental health.”
DeBlieck said the ability to do their jobs well was key for reserve component units working alongside allies, partners and other components.
“Everybody was doing an excellent job of working together,” DeBlieck said.
Sgt. Eric Frank of the 732nd was selected to work the Class 1 yard — food, water and rations — but spent much of his time manning the entry control point due to his prior military police experience. He said this exercise was a learning experience for active component units as well.
“A lot of active-duty components I know haven’t worked with the National Guard or Reserves,” Frank said. “They think the National Guard can’t work with them, and when we get here we show them how proficient we are and how we can work side-by-side with them as soon as we hit the ground. Hopefully we gave them a whole new perspective of what the National Guard really is.”
Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Van Auken has deployed multiple times in his military career, but said his experience in Poland was different than almost any other time spent overseas.
“Poland is an exercise that draws in so many countries and has so many pieces added to it in such a short time frame, every day is a little different,” Van Auken explained. “You get to meet people from Bulgaria, Romania, and then the next day Poles and British. It’s quite an experience.”
Sgt. Jerod Meyer served as battalion intelligence noncommissioned officer in charge for the 732nd, performing real-world analysis of identified threats and recommending force protection changes.
“I was the sole relay between our higher headquarters and our subordinate companies for all subjects that involve enemy, weather, terrain or civil disturbance,” Meyer said. “On top of that, I spent a lot of time leading junior soldiers, conducting warrior tasks, and I also got a lot of window time — I drove well over 500 miles on Polish roadways. That was an experience I will never forget.”
Spc. Elise Geske, a supply specialist, enjoyed her first annual training.
“It’s helped our unit work better together as well as with other units,” Geske said. “It’s a great experience.”
Van Auken noted that Anakonda 16 presented its fair share of challenges, but challenges are common to field operations.
“You have to make the most of any opportunity you are given,” Van Auken said. “Not every unit in the Wisconsin National Guard has been able to attend such a large-scale NATO exercise.”
Lt. Col. Jefferson Wolfe and Spc. Amber Peck contributed to this report.