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U.S And 25 Other Nations To Participate In Huge Joint Training Exercise

NOEL KING, HOST:

Thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, the U.S. military is normalizing its operations, and that includes a massive joint training exercise now starting across Europe and into North Africa. Jay Price of member station WUNC sent us this report from Fort Bragg, N.C.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Stepping off a helicopter sounds simple, unless you're packed in tight under a layer of rucksacks, fiddling with a tricky four-way seatbelt.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Go, go, go. Oh, no.

PRICE: That soldier and the rest of his unit did manage to worm their way out. For troops like these paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division, getting ready for major exercises usually starts like this, with rehearsing basics like getting on and off a chopper during an air assault. This time, though, it really started with a needle. COVID-19 vaccine reluctance among the troops has made headlines for weeks now, but every one of these paratroopers had to volunteer for vaccination or miss out on what many of them see as a paratrooper's dream training.

ALEXANDER EBERT: Really excited for the opportunity, sir.

PRICE: Sergeant Alexander Ebert leads an eight-soldier reconnaissance team. They had all been vaccinated earlier, and he said his larger unit had a pretty high vaccination rate. But the chance to participate in such a major exercise was all the reason many holdouts needed.

EBERT: It's something not a lot of guys in the 82nd get the chance to do, and I think that got us, like, probably a handful more guys excited to get double vaccinated and then get on a bird over to Estonia.

PRICE: Defender Europe 21, as it's called, is one of the largest joint exercises in Europe in recent decades. The 82nd is leading the 10-nation airborne part. It's sending 2,000 troops. They'll follow a complex matrix of anti-COVID measures, including complying with the regulations in every one of more than a dozen host nations. The Army tried a similar exercise last year but had to pull the plug on much of it as the pandemic surged. Becca Wasser is an expert on war-gaming at the Center for a New American Security.

BECCA WASSER: Defender 20 - so the exercise that was supposed to happen at a much larger scale last year - was about demonstrating the U.S. commitment to its NATO partners and to Europe more broadly.

PRICE: This giant set of war games has several aims. One is to send a message to Russia. Much of the action will be in Balkan and Black Sea nations close to its borders. But it also gives the troops and commanders training in meshing large allied forces and practice in shepherding huge volumes of equipment and vehicles through different ports and over long distances across multiple borders. Again, Becca Wasser.

WASSER: And the fact that the COVID-19 crisis changed plans for Defender 20 really meant that a lot of U.S. military planners wanted to come back full force for Defender 21.

PRICE: In Europe, coping with that mosaic of COVID rules and the constantly changing state of the pandemic in each country is something the military is getting used to dealing with. Colonel Joe Scrocca is a spokesman for U.S. Army Europe and Africa and said training there really only stopped for about three months last year.

JOE SCROCCA: COVID is part of the operational environment here, and we've been living it for the last year.

PRICE: Even without a pandemic, the logistics involved would be staggering.

SCROCCA: Honestly, we've got operations going on, and looking at the calendar is just mind-boggling. You know, five or six different operations going on in different countries on the same days - it's really taking a lot of brainpower to put that all together, but our allies and partners are doing a lot of it. It's not something that we can do alone.

PRICE: Or by video call, email or texting.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: Go, go, go.

PRICE: This kind of work has to be done in person.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Fort Bragg, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF WE CAME FROM THE NORTH'S "BORDER MONUMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.