By Rick Lyman
March 29, 2015

The line of 4-year-olds clutched hands tightly in their matching, reflective yellow vests and stared open-mouthed at the hovering Chinook helicopters kicking up grit last week in the school parking lot. Shy teenage girls took pictures beside grinning American soldiers while Polish families clambered over a line of Stryker armored vehicles.

“I am very worried and afraid about what Russia might do next,” said Urszula Wronko, 69, a retired postal worker who watched in a bright red jacket and beret from a nearby stone bench, her shaggy dog squirming happily in her lap. “It gives us all comfort to see these American soldiers and to know they are here for us.”

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of United States Army forces in Europe, said the idea for Operation Dragoon Ride — part public relations event, part training exercise, part shot across the Russian bow — came to him slowly, over several months.

“There was not a burning bush kind of moment,” the general said.

He had watched, with growing concern, as President Vladimir V. Putin staged one mass military training exercise after another, ostentatiously demonstrating how rapidly Russian troops could move across the European frontier. He noted that ordinary Poles and others were growing increasingly anxious about Russia’s intentions as the long conflict in Ukraine dragged on.

And then a British friend decided, as a training exercise, to move a company of soldiers deploying to North Africa overland across France and Spain rather than flying them.

“These things were banging around in my mind,” General Hodges said, just as a three-month deployment of American troops in the Baltics and Poland, part of a continuing series of joint training exercises known as Atlantic Resolve, was coming to an end.

Normally, the American equipment would be loaded aboard rail cars and shipped in the dead of night while the soldiers flew back to their base in Germany.

But General Hodges thought, this time, they would drive the 120 armored vehicles, one lumbering mile after another, accompanied by more than 500 American troops.

And not just drive, but take a meandering, 1,100-mile trek through six countries, stopping in towns and villages along the way to mingle with local people and reassure allies by showing that the American military’s presence was more than a rumor.

It would also, he said, further demonstrate — “to Russians and anyone else” — that the American military was just as capable of moving quickly across great distances, in its case even across national borders.

“We wanted them to see that we can do this, too,” the general said.

By the time it is finished, Operation Dragoon Ride, which began a week ago in the Baltics and is due to conclude later this week, will be the longest such movement the United States Army has made across Europe since Gen. George S. Patton diverted his Third Army to relieve Bastogne, Belgium, in 1944.

And so, a nylon canopy was set up over a lectern beside a display of Polish, American and European Union flags in Drawsko Pomorskie, a town of 12,000 in northwest Poland. A Polish squad stood at attention in the courtyard outside the local cinema — “Cinderella” was playing, and “Furious 7” was due in a couple of weeks — beside two groups of American soldiers, saluting smartly as both nations’ anthems blared on a loudspeaker.

“The political situation in Europe is very uncertain at the moment,” Mayor Zbigniew Ptak told the troops. “So your presence here gives us a real sense of security.”

The Chinooks made their first pass over the ceremony, drowning out the mayor’s speech and whipping the regimental flags.

“Maybe this show of strength will mean that there will be no war at all,” said Urszula Sobczyk, a biology teacher, as she tried to keep her phalanx of 17-year-old boys in order. “But I must say, I am very worried these days.”

Capt. David Engoren — whose Third Squad of the Second Cavalry Regiment (nicknamed “Dragoons”) was completing its three-month deployment and would join the convoy the next morning for the remaining 560-mile drive back to Germany, via the Czech Republic — looked with empathy at the squirming teenagers.

“Looks like they got ‘volun-told’ to be here,” he said.

Captain Engoren said he was a little shocked when he first heard, several months ago, about the plan, envisioning the endless logistical hurdles. But now that it’s underway, he is increasingly excited about the adventure and what it might accomplish.

Among other things, the ambitious movement will serve as “a spur ride” for the soldiers.

It is an important moment for a cavalry soldier to “earn his spurs,” he explained. The tradition goes back at least to the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century. For riding into battle, troops earn their “gold spurs.” For making a long journey, like this one, they earn their “silver spurs,” as those taking part in this ride will.

They are actual spurs, Captain Engoren said, that are prized and worn on special regimental occasions, often with the vintage Stetsons recognizable from old John Ford films.

Hundreds of locals had turned up earlier in the week to greet the Americans and in the larger city of Bialystok in northeast Poland, some bringing gifts of cake and vodka to the troops. “The pictures looked like scenes from France and Holland in 1944,” General Hodges said.

All along the slow route through rural lanes and divided highways, Poles have emerged and waved to the passing vehicles. “Not one person has given us the finger yet,” the general said.

That may have changed Sunday when the convoy hit the Czech Republic, where opinion is split on the question of NATO versus Russia. While hundreds of Czechs greeted the convoy warmly when it passed into the country, a contingent of anti-NATO protesters was also in evidence.

“We’ve been considering blocking the roads but eventually decided to stage a protest in Prague outside the base where the U.S. soldiers will be staying,” said Jiri Vyvadil, a former Social Democrat member of Parliament who has become a leading pro-Russian voice in the country. “I will come with a banner that says ‘Czechs against NATO.’”

No such attitudes were on public display in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania or Poland — countries that consider themselves much more directly at risk of future Russian aggression. Nor was it the dominant opinion in the Czech Republic. Indeed, a group of Harley-Davidson riders met the American convoy at the Czech border to escort it through the country.

In the school parking lot in Drawsko Pomorskie where the Americans had set up their Stryker vehicles for public inspection, Andrzey Matuzak watched from his battered blue bicycle.

Mr. Matuzak, 59, a former border guard during the communist years in Poland, was wearing a smart set of American camouflage fatigues. But he expressed surprise when asked if he had dressed up especially for the occasion.

“I wear these all the time,” he said. “I just happened to be riding by when I saw the helicopters.”

Marcelina Klimczak-Bolewicz pushed her 8-month-old daughter, Paula, in a covered stroller up the ramp of one of the Stryker vehicles while her 3-year-old son, Karol, casually inspected the heavy armaments.

“Yes, it makes me feel safer to see the Americans here like this,” she said. “But it’s not enough. We need more and more of them. I am very afraid of this conflict and what might happen to these little ones. Who knows what Putin might do?”

Jan Richter contributed reporting from Prague.