Soldiers from the world over mix at Sergeants Major Academy
By David Burge | El Paso Times, Texas | Published: November 24, 2012
FORT BLISS, Texas — The United States has often been described as a melting pot because of its rich diversity.
At Fort Bliss, the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy could be called a mini-melting pot.
The academy, dedicated to noncommissioned officer education, has a strong history of foreign student participation.
During the current school year, 42 foreign students from 38 allied nations are taking the signature 42-week sergeants major course that started in August and will end in June, said Michael R. Huffman, director of the International Military Student Office at the academy.
About 650 total students, mostly Americans from all branches of service, are taking the course. About one out of 16 students is from a foreign country, Huffman said.
These foreign students typically have an economic impact of about $2 million a year on the El Paso economy, Huffman added. That includes rent and other monthly expenses.
Over the years, students from 72 nations have attended courses at the school, Huffman said.
The Sergeants Major Academy is considered the "gold standard" around the world for noncommissioned officer education, he said.
"For most partner nations, this is considered the premier institution," he said.
The academy was started in 1972 and had its first graduating class in 1973. It got its first foreign student in 1975, Huffman said.
"If you look at the class photos from those early days, it was usually one
or two foreign students," he said.
Foreign student participation has steadily grown over the years, he added.
Classes are discussion-oriented, and there is always at least one foreign student in each class.
That creates a mix of ideas in which American students and their foreign counterparts can learn "best practices" from each other, Huffman said.
"We as Americans don't always have the best policies and procedures," he said. "Sometimes, we can learn from our partner nations."
The biggest benefit is that when there are joint international operations in places like Afghanistan, service members who have attended the academy will have a better understanding of each other, Huffman said.
"If I understand you and your values system and we go and serve together in Afghanistan, it makes it easier to work together," he said. "The biggest impact is tolerance."
For instance, when Jordanian students have attended the academy, that has helped to combat stereotypes about Muslims, Huffman said. American students also learn that their Jordanian counterparts have battled terrorism for years too, he said.
Italian Army Master Sgt. Massimo Pizzolla said attending the academy is a "good opportunity to see a different point of view."
Pizzolla has served in Iraq and Afghanistan with coalition forces. Most of the time when you serve overseas, that means serving with Americans, he said.
"It gives you a better understanding of them," he said.
Pizzolla said that his coursework will help him with his military career.
"It's up to me if it helps my country and my army," he said.
Royal Netherlands Army Sgt. Maj. Remko Weijts is also a student at the academy. When he graduates, he said, he will stay on two more years and become an instructor.
Weijts has been deployed in Bosnia and Afghanistan, where he served with U.S. troops.
He compares life to wearing a backpack.
"You keep putting things in your backpack as you go through life," he said. "My backpack is expanding (because of this experience). I need a bigger backpack."
Huffman said his job is to teach foreign students about U.S. culture, traditions, how local, state and federal government works, the education system and economics.
To do that, they go on field trips to meet the mayor of El Paso, attend part of a City Council meeting, go to a courtroom trial, visit various schools and take trips to Austin and Washington, D.C.
As part of the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy International Military Student Office program, Sgt. Maj. Jefferson Ntabana of Rwanda talks to an El Paso school class in February, 2010 about his country's armed forces' tactics and techniques in conservation and prevention of poaching.
G.A. Volb/U.S. Army