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Georgian soldiers line up to board a Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopter for training at a nearby base. Since last summer, a contingent of U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen have been in the small Caucasian country of Georgia trying to build an army brigade to NATO and Western standards.
Georgian soldiers line up to board a Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopter for training at a nearby base. Since last summer, a contingent of U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen have been in the small Caucasian country of Georgia trying to build an army brigade to NATO and Western standards. (Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S)

KRTSANISI TRAINING AREA, Georgia — The explosions would soon start going off, and again, Army Capt. Marlon Ringo reminded the couple hundred Georgian soldiers of the intricacies that come with setting off more than 200 pounds of C4 explosives.

Anybody not following the rules would be kicked off the hill and nearby ravine where the charges would be placed, he said. Stay away, and alert commanders to old, unexploded ordnance in the area. Avoid animals.

“The only authorized smoking areas are back by those trees,” said Ringo, with the Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.-based 1st Engineer Brigade.

Before training began, a Georgian woman tried to herd her cattle through the training area, but Georgian soldiers turned her away. “She was saying she is going to take her cows through and she doesn’t care about C4 or something,” Georgian army Cpl. Jon Geldiashivili said through an interpreter, adding that the woman said she was scared of rival shepherds nearby.

Since last summer, Ringo and about 65 U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen have been in this small Caucasian country trying to build an army brigade to NATO and Western standards.

With most of the U.S. forces coming from the Germany-based Joint Multinational Readiness Center, the brigade’s three battalions have been getting 12-week courses on everything from urban operations to first aid and mortar use.

In the process, these U.S. troops are at the forefront of a push by the United States and Georgia’s pro-West government to bring the three-brigade army into the modern world.

Formally known as Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operations Program II, the $28 million initiative builds on training efforts by the U.S. military that began a few years ago. In its latest incarnation, the training has been whittled down to 12-week cycles for each approximately 540-man battalion.

As a result, every training minute counts, said Army Lt. Col. Craig Jones, program commander.

“‘Cram’ is a pretty good word,” Jones said of the training.

The first five weeks or so are spent with individualized training in areas such as communications and land navigation.

The $28 million price tag pays for operations and support, but specialized equipment, such as radios, also were provided to the Georgians through the program.

During the sixth week, fire teams are established, followed by squads and larger units.

“This way, before we start the collective drills, we know all the soldiers are prepared,” Jones said. “Throughout the 12 weeks, the training continues to build on itself.”

While Georgia became independent in the 1990s, its army and democratic institutions still are largely embryonic. “This is a brand new army that’s just three years old,” Jones said.

Time is inevitably an issue, and some aspects of marksmanship or other training have to be put by the wayside.

“You only get a couple days to learn how to do this,” Army 1st Lt. Joshua Sims said as he watched a Georgian company practice on the firing range.

“You keep telling them the same things,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Cipolla. “It’s all new to them, how we train.”

For Army Sgt. Orlando Soto and other noncommissioned officers who make up the majority of the training staff, the language issues have been difficult.

“Being here awhile, though, you tend to pick it up,” he said. “You just hear it so many times.”

Those soldiers doing the training have inevitably learned Georgian on the fly, Jones said. About 80 “terps” are contracted to provide translation for the instructors.

“One of the biggest challenges is the language,” Jones said. “Our guys have done a very good job picking up Georgian commands and instructions. They can yell at a soldier to get his attention without the ‘terp.’ That short time could have a significant impact.”

While the Georgian government wants to modernize its military and join NATO, the training also will prepare the battalions for deployment to Iraq.

“The majority of the battalion commanders already deployed to Iraq as company commanders,” Jones said of the Georgian leadership. “The brigade commanders deployed to Iraq as battalion commanders.

They’ve already been trained and nested by the U.S. Army.”

And while U.S. instructors do their best, there are some resource shortages that affect the training. For example, not having enough blank rounds to re-create the chaos of combat means U.S. instructors have to look for other ways.

“The only stress I can put on them sometimes is from me,” Sims said. “That’s the kind of atmosphere they’re going to encounter for real.”

“You’ve got to make do with what you’ve got,” said Army Staff Sgt. Michael Bellinger.

For Georgian Col. Koba Lachkepiani, commander of the Krtsanisi Training Area, the training is a main piece of bringing Georgia more concretely in line with the West and NATO.

“Our future is in training,” Lachkepiani said through an interpreter. “All the things happening on the base are a step to NATO.”

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