Training turns soldiers into ‘culture experts’ on Iraq
Mideast edition, Wednesday, September 19, 2007
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — As the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division prepares for its upcoming deployment to Iraq, the focus is on more than weapons and traditional warfighting exercises. Cultivating “culture experts” is also part of the plan.
About 100 Baumholder soldiers are taking part in the Iraqi Headstart program, a weeklong crash course in history and language aimed at helping soldiers bridge the cultural divide when they deploy.
In the past, such programs have been directed more toward higher-level noncommissioned officers and officers, said Maj. Pat N. Kaune of the 2nd BCT headquarters.
Now the 2nd BCT is making sure junior enlisted members are being enrolled in the program, where they learn about the origins of sectarian strife, cultural taboos and the alien sounds of Arabic.
“We ask a lot from them, so you need to arm them with the tools,” Kaune said. “This is going to help them understand more about the environment they’re going to be working in. They’ll know what to look for and know when something isn’t right.”
The objective, Kaune said, also is to train as many soldiers as possible so that every platoon will be an effective ambassador as it patrols Iraqi neighborhoods. In January, shortly before the brigade deploys in early 2008, another group of soldiers will be selected for the training.
“Col. White is emphasizing this. We’re focusing on going over there and building relationships,” Kaune said of Col. Robert P. White, 2nd BCT commander.
White said leaders within each battalion have worked to identify soldiers who possess an aptitude for language and a cultural curiosity.
“My goal is for every platoon to have at least one cultural expert,” White said. “These are the guys on the ground who are interacting with the Iraqis every day.”
The hope is to have a network of soldiers capable of communicating on a deeper level than reading off language pamphlets. “We need people out there who understand the nuances,” White said.
Pfc. Steve Cleburn, of 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, was among those selected for the class.
The opportunity to engage with the Iraqi people “was one of the reasons I enlisted,” Cleburn said. “I already feel like I understand the culture a little bit better. You have to keep an open mind.”
“By being more aware, we can probably avoid some of the problems,” added classmate Pfc. Keeton Tucker, referring to various gestures and taboos to be avoided.
Tucker said he’ll be passing along what he’s learned to other soldiers.
“The idea is, when we get over there we have a base to start a conversation,” Tucker said.
Linnea Tippett, the course instructor, said that’s the purpose of her class.
“Hopefully they’ll be able to start communicating,” she said. “They’ll see Arabic and know what it says.”
But on Tuesday morning, the class was focused on the basics.
“What about the ‘V’ sound?” asked one soldier trying to write out his name in Arabic.
“There is no ‘V’ sound,” responded Tippett.
A quick phonics lesson followed.