Marines, Bulgarians conduct joint Exercise Peace Sentinel 13

Marines, Bulgarians conduct joint Exercise Peace Sentinel 13

Cpl Nicholas Zablonski, a team leader and vehicle commander with Black Sea Rotational Force 14, takes a knee during the defensive operation of Exercise Peace Sentinel in Novo Selo, Bulgaria. Photo by 2ndLt Danielle Dixon.

NOVO SELO TRAINING AREA, Bulgaria (Nov. 15, 2013) - Marines and sailors with Black Sea Rotational Force 14 trained alongside Bulgarian soldiers from 1st Company, 2nd Battalion, 61st Mechanized Brigade as a part of Exercise Peace Sentinel 13. The two-week long exercise, which began on Oct. 28, included cordon-and-search tactics and battalion-sized defense and raid operations that included dismounted, mounted, and combined-arms tactics.

Sgt Donnel Watkins, a squad leader with BSRF-14, worked alongside the Bulgarian soldiers and demonstrated small-unit leadership and squad-level tactics.

"The purpose was to join forces and work together," said Watkins. "The hardest part was communication."

The obvious language barrier provided some friction to the fighting forces. Through cohesive training, however, both the Marines and the Bulgarians began communicating implicitly.

"Almost every operation I learned something while working with them. The first thing I remember from my first conversation with a Marine was [the term] ‘geometries of fire.' We don't call it that. It's not translatable [what we call geometry of fire]. But every [Marine] knows what they are doing. We had an ambush and both flanks [executed]," he added. "It's really easy to work with [Marines] because I don't need to say anything. I can just use a hand signal. They are so disciplined."

First Lieutenant Michael Phillips, a platoon commander with BSRF-14, experienced the Bulgarian's work ethic and leadership first hand as he assisted in tactical planning and the execution of the exercise.

"Working with the Bulgarians was excellent because of their hospitality and their ability to break down communication barriers," said Phillips. "They have complete dedication to the mission and their soldiers. Servant-leadership is a foundational tool in the Marine Corps and I think they have truly mastered that."

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the two fighting forces was the decentralization of command. The Marine Corps is well known for the ‘strategic corporal.' Enlisted leaders are empowered and given the responsibility and privilege of leading Marines. The Bulgarian soldiers rely more on their officer leadership to guide them. This also created a difference in tactical planning.

"They were very surprised. They were really blown away that a corporal was a vehicle commander," said Cpl Nicholas Zablonski, a squad leader and vehicle commander with BSRF-14. "Delegating responsibility to an enlisted Marine or their soldiers was a big shock to them, but I think it was good for them to see."

SSgt David Dahl, the platoon sergeant and senior enlisted tactical advisor with the Marines, assisted in the raid operations and defense planning. Dahl contributed to combining different war fighting tactics to create a workable medium for the Marines and Bulgarians to adopt.

"There was a difference in tactics and techniques in how things are done. Bulgarians are still using an older style of tactics which involves more large-scale operations—putting a large face in front of the enemy. Almost like an intimidation style technique which is different from the Marine Corps style," said Dahl.

"[The Bulgarians] showed us the way they would plan the mission and we showed them the way we would do ours. We were able to combine the two techniques for a cordon-and-search operation and ended up successfully completing the course. The company got really high reviews from their chain of command. They loved it and we had a blast doing it."

Marines were able to become familiar with the Bulgarian soldier's weapon systems, dismounting techniques, and observed the Bulgarian Special Forces conduct raid operations. The exercise concluded with a battalion-sized defense and raid operation that was observed by distinguished visitors from both nations, to include the President of Bulgaria. Miroslav Minchev, a sergeant with the Bulgarian forces, worked with Marines once before in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He said the conduct of the Marines was no less professional than the first time he met them in a combat zone.

Dimitar Nedev, a private first class with the Bulgarian forces, described the Marines as ‘inspiring.'

"They are really good guys," said Nedev. "Not only good soldiers, but guys—humans."

The Marines made sure they didn't leave without finding ways to keep in touch with their new comrades. Although these warriors only knew each other a short time, the brotherhood developed quickly.

Capt Momchil Dimitrov, the Bulgarian company commander working alongside Phillips' platoon, said it best when he made his closing remarks to the Marines.

"Everyone is just a soldier, it doesn't matter the language. What we proved in the last ten days is just that—we can work together no matter the language barrier or different names in tactics. I really appreciate everything we shared together. And I think it's the same with my guys. The relations that we built here are strong enough for future meetings and operations," said Dimitrov.

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