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, 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.
Army Spec. Daniel T. McLawhorn, son of Mack McLawhorn of Clearwater and Kathi Daniels of Largo, 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 force designed to make stronger allies of Romania and Bulgaria.
The operation hones the skills of soldiers from all three nations as well as helps the people living in some of the poorest areas of the two European countries.
"I'm in Bulgaria conducting joint training as a rifle team leader with a Bulgarian special forces company," McLawhorn said.
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 clear a hostile urban area. They also took time to visit a number of villages and allowed children to explore the vehicles they were using.
"We're practicing clearing trenches, bunkers, buildings and other tactical techniques," said McLawhorn, who has been in the Army for five years.
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 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 American soldiers and their Bulgarian or Romanian counterparts got their messages across.
"It's new and exciting to learn about other countries and how their militaries operate," said McLawhorn, who was deployed to Iraq from September 2006 to December 2007.
Romanian, Bulgarian and American service members, like McLawhorn, are working to keep the relationships going long after everyone has gone home. The relationships built on this training ground will go a long way toward making sure the three nations can work together.
Jessica Switzer is an Air Force staff sergeant with the Joint Hometown News Service.