Paratroopers in Germany duck drones as Saber Junction shifts to live-fire training

Thunderous booms joined the crackle of machine guns echoing over the rolling Bavarian hills, as U.S. paratroopers shifted this week to the live-fire portion of Saber Junction, a multinational annual exercise aimed at demonstrating American commitment to its allies.

The 173rd Infantry Brigade, together with militaries from allied and partner nations, began the exercise on Sept. 4; it continues through Oct. 1.

Last week, the airborne brigade’s “Sky Soldiers” assembled from locations throughout Europe and set up command posts. This week, they are taking their weapons to the field to practice marksmanship. War games begin next week.

For Sgt. Tyler Patterson, a field artillery gunner with the brigade, Saber Junction has meant evading simulated unmanned drones, providing howitzer fire for infantry soldiers miles away and catching moments of sleep whenever the guns aren’t going off.

“We’re pushed away in the trees with our howitzers and Humvees, under camo netting,” Patterson said Tuesday. “E-4s and below are pulling M240 (machine gun) guard duty. NCOs are pulling radio guard and hour-to-hour we’re waiting for the infantry to call for fire missions. That’s life right now for us.”

During the exercise, 5,500 troops from the U.S. and 19 other countries will fight against a fictitious enemy foe, played by U.S. soldiers at the Hohenfels Training Area.

“To say I’m proud of this brigade to this point would be an understatement,” said Col. James Bartholomees, the brigade’s commander. “We’ve been conducting ranges, planning and rehearsing nonstop, and are preparing to take the entire 173rd Airborne Brigade into a live-fire exercise, which will absolutely improve our lethality and our combat readiness.”

Following the live-fire portion, teams of soldiers will jump from airplanes into a simulated battle, while others will hit the ground after helicopters fly them into the action. The aircraft will arrive at Hohenfels from Ramstein Air Base.

“With that exercise you’ll see thousands of U.S. and allied paratroopers enter Hohenfels in a matter of hours to secure the training area and set the stage for 10 days of intense land combat, which the 173rd is uniquely ready to execute,” Bartholomees said.

Though Patterson and his fellow artillerymen are sleeping on the ground beneath their M119 howitzers and eating Meals, Ready to Eat for lunch every day, he says they are generally motivated and “pumped up whenever we shoot rounds.”

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