By Air Force Staff Sgt. Jessica Switzer, Special to The Post and Courier
Thursday, February 25, 2010
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, 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 North Charleston 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 group designed to build stronger ties with Romania and Bulgaria.
The operation hones the skills of soldiers from all three nations and helps the people living in some of the poorest areas of the two European countries.
Army Sgt. Freddie L. Coakley, son of Freddie Coakley Jr. of North Charleston, is a petroleum laboratory specialist with the 240th Quartermaster Supply Company in Bamberg, Germany, and is in Romania to support the task force, based at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base.
"I'm responsible for the fuel operations in Romania," said the 1986 Garrett High School graduate. "We set up our system to make sure everything on base stays running."
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.
"I enjoy being out here and meeting with a different nation's army and understanding how they operate in ways that are different from our Army," said Coakley, who served 10 years in the Navy before joining the Army four years ago. "Their equipment is very different from ours, but they still get the job done."
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.
Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, the American soldiers and their Bulgarian or Romanian counterparts usually were able to get their messages across.
"It amazes me how soldiers can be from two different countries but still be so alike," said Coakley.