MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, ROMANIA - On a freezing, windy day in eastern Romania, U.S. Army Sergeant Chase Williams is urging a team of soldiers to jump out of a hovering Blackhawk and rappel 25 meters to the snow-covered ground below.
"You know you just got to get over that fear. You just got to get over that ledge the first time," Williams says of the 101st Airborne Division's Air Assault course, a grueling program that some soldiers refer to as "the 10 toughest days in the Army."
Williams and his fellow trainers have taught the 10-day program several times since last summer when 4,700 troops with the 101st Airborne Division deployed across eastern Europe, but the iteration completed this week was unique. For the first time ever, soldiers in the division offered their punishing air assault course to partners on European soil.
Graduates from the course at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base included U.S., Romanian, Dutch, French and Slovak soldiers.
It's the latest example of how the division, deployed to Europe for the first time since World War II, is bolstering NATO's eastern flank in response to Russia's war in Ukraine.
In Romania, U.S. troop numbers have tripled from approximately 1,000 troops in January 2022 to about 3,000 today. A high-end missile launched from Russian-controlled Crimea could reach the soldiers based along the Black Sea in about seven minutes, according to U.S. Army Colonel Ed Matthaidess, commander of the 101st's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
"We are the closest U.S. Army formation to the fight in Ukraine right now," Matthaidess told VOA.
Since their arrival, the 101st has spread out to fortify its positions across the country, and in other nations on NATO's eastern flank.
"We've prepared our force for whatever eventuality, so we've reinforced protection around Mihail Kogalniceanu. We've dispersed our forces so we're not a single target," Matthaidess said.
During a helicopter ride along Romania's coastline to the border with Ukraine, Matthaidess showed VOA how U.S. forces are holding the line with NATO allies.
"We're taking it as close as we can to combat, right? So, we're preparing for large-scale operations," he said. "We're exercising on the ground with which we might fight if we have to defend NATO."
At a forward operating post just a few kilometers away from Ukrainian territory, several Humvees - some capable of carrying TOW antitank missiles, others equipped with a heavy machine gun or heavy grenade launcher - were gathering at a range for target practice.
Further south at an outpost filled with old farm buildings, U.S. soldiers trained Romanians on how to maneuver in urban terrain, going door-to-door clearing the area.
Matthaidess said the U.S. team has been watching Russian tactics in neighboring Ukraine "closely" and has adapted their training with partners to better suit what they see on the battlefield.
"We just got done with a big series of live fires, where we were attacking some trench lines that look very similar to what you might see across the border," he told VOA.
The team also started incorporating small drones in some exercises, shooting down systems "very similar to what's flooding the battlefield right now' in Ukraine, he added.
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team will leave Romania in a couple of months, but the Pentagon recently confirmed that the U.S. military's increased presence in the country will continue at least through this year. The 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team is set to replace Matthaidess' team in what is expected to be a nine-month deployment.
That's reassuring to Major General Ciprian Marin, chief of the Romanian military's Operations Directorate, who says he wants more U.S. troops and more partnered training.
During the 101st Airborne Division's deployment, Romanian forces have been honing their existing defense skills with the Americans, while in the case of the air assault course, acquiring a new capability that Romanian ground forces didn't have before this week.
"With war, it's about life and death, and [working together] makes the difference between failure and success. So, if you want to be successful, we are to be together, to stick together, and build this interoperability," Marin said.