Magazine article National Defense

'The New Army': Soldiers Sharpen Humanitarian, Diplomatic Skills

Magazine article National Defense

'The New Army': Soldiers Sharpen Humanitarian, Diplomatic Skills

Article excerpt

FORT IRWIN, Calif. -- As they train for combat in mock Middle Eastern villages, soldiers find that their fighting skills often cannot make up for a shortage of interpreters and a poor understanding of Iraqi culture. A team of soldiers from the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 3rd Stryker Brigade, a part of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division, is here at the National Training Center for a two-week rotation. They are about to launch a humanitarian aid mission at a refugee camp. The goal is to prepare soldiers to cope with the unpredictable hurdles that come with interacting with people from a different culture.

When the sun begins to disappear one evening in February, Capt. Paul Russell, commander of the 18th Engineering Company, leads a convoy that is heading to the refugee camp, located in the southeastern sector of the center's 1,100 square miles of Mojave Desert. He will be working with units not normally under his charge for this operation.

"That's the new Army," he says. "You have to be prepared to do all kinds of missions," even when the missions are as unpleasant as providing latrines.

The day before, the brigade's human intelligence team met with the displaced civilians, and the biggest issue they brought up was latrines. They don't have enough of them, and the ones they do have are overflowing. The other issue is acquiring heat for the nighttime.

As the convoy enters the refugee camp, a group of men in tan uniforms--members of the Iraqi Arm?; played by American soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment--eye the newcomers with curiosity.

One Iraqi soldier approaches Spc. Amber Davatz, a member of the Belton, Mo.-based 418th Civil Affairs Battalion, and says something in jibberish. The others close in as he pulls out his magazine and points at the rounds inside.

"Bad American," he says.

Others follow suit, and when they don't receive any response, they begin chanting and become rowdy.

The noise attracts some of the displaced villagers, who are being portrayed by volunteers of Iraqi descent from southern California. They gather a short distance away to watch.

One of the role-playing soldiers covertly steals a box of meals ready to eat. To pacify the situation, Capt. John Schulz of the 418th hops into the trailer and starts tossing soccer balls to hands up in the air. The Iraqi soldiers and the villagers run off in several pick-up games.

Schulz seizes the opportunity to send one Humvee back to the base entrance to pick up Capt. Matthew Nelson, another member of the civil affairs team, and an interpreter. With their help, he issues a statement that the Americans will train the Iraqi soldiers better.

Schulz and Nelson venture into the camp searching for the village leaders.

Meanwhile, several relief trucks pull into the camp, attracting the displaced villagers, who pour out of the tents in hopes of getting food, water and blankets. They crowd around the outnumbered soldiers who calmly keep them back. A few brazen role players scramble on top of the truck bed and attempt to off-load some of the supplies before they are stopped.

"These people don't have the basic necessities. They want to get them quickly," says Nelson, who spent two years in Afghanistan conducting civil affairs operations. An unruly crowd desperately trying to grab whatever supplies it can get its hands on is a typical scenario soldiers encounter in theater, he says.

A group of women standing nearby begins clapping their hands and chanting. The crowd grows increasingly impatient.

The U.S. soldiers' inability to communicate poses a major impediment in these missions, Nelson says. "They need an interpreter to figure out what's going on." For the training exercises, the brigade has been allocated fewer interpreters than it wanted.

As if on cue, a male voice booms over a loudspeaker and a female one follows shortly. …

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