„Oh, this feels good,“ an American who sat next to me said after downing a long draught of beer. We had reason to feel content, having just finished a three-day 50 kilometer journey on foot in the biting cold of Ida-Viru County and a series of guest lectures in local schools.
The trek that started in the small settlement of Voka and made its way down wintry Estonian side-roads proved to be somewhat significant. Not only did the company-sized unit of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade stay in predominantly Russian-speaking towns, like Sillamäe, Narva-Jõesuu, and finally Narva, the soldiers also visited the historical Blue Hills battleground and walked along the river Narva, where photographers managed to snap pictures of a Soviet tank monument and the Ivangorod Fortress.
Attitudes of locals toward allied soldiers' presence near the Russian border varied. There were those who honked their horns to salute the column as they passed, while there were others who really believed the sight of Americans in their back yards was a sign of coming war.
Wearing nothing but a machine gun
The Americans had spent a long time preparing for the trek. They had heeded their Estonian colleagues' warning that it would be prudent to dress light. Everyone made do with lighter garments despite temperatures of 15-20 degrees below freezing.
Instead the unit was taken by surprise when one of their number (SPC Thomas J.) overheated. We stopped a few kilometers from Sillamäe and could see his body steaming like hot stones hit by cold water in a sauna. After that, Thomas was left wearing his shirt, bulletproof vest, winter fatigues, and machine gun.
The Americans were equally taken aback by the icy road. This was a new experience for the company that cursed its winter boots. More than one soldier exclaimed: “To hell with this place!” after a fall. When I asked the soldiers whether they had meant it later, I was told everything was okay. “Estonia will not go undefended because of that,” one man told me laughing.
We were busy setting up our mats and sleeping bags in the hallway of the Narva-Jõesuu High School where we were stopping for the night when SPCs Qadar W. and Danny R. got into an argument over whether the latter's girlfriend was racist.
African American Qadar claimed she was. Danny did not agree. It turned out that the girl and her parents had referred to a man from Mexico using the world “nigger”. We also learned that Danny's girlfriend is from Saint Petersburg, and that he had met her via Tinder just a few weeks earlier.
Most U.S. soldiers are married. The reason is simple – marriage is favored by the system. The home base of the 173rd Airborne Brigade is located close to Venice in Italy. Soldiers who are not married cannot take their partners to Italy with them. Married couples are also entitled to more benefits than single people.
Young families are therefore commonplace among U.S. servicemen.
However, the medal has another side. A lot of marriages end in divorce just a few years in. “What can you do; sometimes things just don't work out. Life goes on,” one allied soldiers looking at divorce said.
What motivates Americans to join the army? If in Estonia one can only become a professional soldier after completing compulsory military service, things are different in the USA. The country has had a volunteer army since the 1970s.
That is why those who join the army sport different backgrounds than their counterparts in Estonia.
SPC Tyler H. joined the army because he did not have enough money to go to university straight out of school. Higher education is hugely expensive in America. That is why a lot of young people opt for military service for a period of five to six years. The state later pays a considerable part of one's tuition.
“I have it all figured out. My tour will be done soon, after which I plan to study psychology. I believe I made the right choice as most of my childhood friends have become outcasts,” said 23-year-old Tyler. “The funniest thing is that I will have to go live with my parents again.”
Another example. Sergeant Kohlby H. joined the army after the 9/11 attacks.
“I saw the twin towers go down on TV. It left its mark on my soul. I grew up knowing that terrorists were bad, and that they're trying to take out freedom. So I decided to join the army when I grew up to fight them. I do not regret that decision.”
While soldiers probably had their eyes on the two bottles of local beer they were promised upon completing the extreme trek, they were likely also glad because this was their last task in Estonia. The company is now looking to return to its base in sunny Italy.
Before the soldiers left Narva, they had to do one more thing. Sergeant First Class Anthony Paparella ordered two squads to stand at attention, telling them beforehand: “Russia is right next to you. Do not be sissies. Make some noise.”
The soldiers' reply was worthy.