LOKSA, Estonia --
Local residents and visitors crowded the shore to get a glimpse of the sight reflections gleaming from the tops of the amphibious assault vehicles making their way toward the coast.
As the AAVs took up defensive positions after reaching the shore, U.S. Marines weren’t the only infantrymen to emerge from the dropped ramp and advance upon their objective—joining them were soldiers from the Estonian Defense Force, an historic first for the two NATO allies.
The combined U.S./Estonian amphibious landing comes as part of exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2010, a multinational exercise designed to focus on maritime safety and security as well as focus on increasing the interoperability of the allies and partner nations within the Baltic Sea region.
In a speech addressed to distinguished military visitors, media and the Estonians in attendance, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said he was glad to see the BALTOPS exercise return to Estonia and praised the commitment that NATO has to security and stability in the region.
“The participation of NATO allies and partner countries shows me how well NATO has managed to adjust and adapt to the new security situation here, “said President Ilves. “Bringing in both NATO and non-NATO countries helps us prepare to confront the security challenges we face in the future in the region.”
The Honorable Michael C. Polt, U.S. Ambassador to Estonia, also addressed the attendees and highlighted the spirit of cooperation on which the exercise is based.
“Today’s BALTOPS landing epitomizes the United States’ commitment to Estonia and to our excellent cooperation,” said Ambassador Polt. “This exercise also demonstrates that from Afghanistan to Bosnia, Iraq to Kosovo, on land and at sea—Estonia and the United States can rely on each other in peace and during conflict.”
According to members from both forces, the BALTOPS amphibious landing gave each nation a chance to enhance their understanding of each other and grow stronger as allies.
“[The Estonians] are very familiar with NATO tactics, techniques and procedures, so our integration together to conduct this mission was basically seamless,” said Lt. Col. John Golden, commanding officer of the Special Purpose Marine Air/Ground Task Force Africa Partnership Station (SPMAGTF APS). “It’s valuable for my Marines to get experience with amphibious operations, and it serves both our nations to increase our ability to operate together in the future.”
“It is always important to strengthen our alliance bonds,” said Estonian Defense Force Sgt. Lauri Asu, a squad leader who took part in the landing. “It has been exciting to train with the Marines, and I think we have both learned a lot from each other throughout the conduct of this amphibious landing evolution.”
Upon completion of the landing, the Marines and Sailors set up several vehicles and static equipment displays to give the Estonian people a chance to see it up close and learn more about the technical specifications.
“Having the ability to interact with not only the Estonian soldiers but with the people as well was a unique experience,” said Lance Cpl. Trenton Winkler, a machine gunner with 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. “It gives the opportunity to broaden your perspective and get you thinking not only about your own nation’s role, but also how all of us, as coalition partners, fit into the bigger picture.”
In addition to the combined amphibious landing between the Estonians and Marines of SPMAGTF-APS, Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment have been working with Estonian Defense Forces throughout the duration of the BALTOPS exercise.
For the Marines of the SPMAGTF-APS, Golden said their work here highlighted the flexibility and can-do attitude of the Marine Corps in what has been an historic deployment for the unit.
Deployed in January, the SPMAGTF-APS Marines embarked aboard the USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) and have served under three combatant commanders: providing humanitarian crisis assistance in the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, conducting theater security/cooperation engagements throughout West Africa, and now here in Estonia, providing the first Marine Corps landing in the country.
“We have proven that we can execute operations across the spectrum,” Golden said. “The Marine Corps has been focused on deep land campaigns for a while, but what our deployment has shown is that we are still able to get back to our amphibious nature in addition to having the flexibility to conduct real world humanitarian assistance.”