MACEDONIA (6/28/12) - Soldiers with the Vermont Army National Guard's 124th Regional Training Institute and 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team joined a dozen other countries in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia recently for a two-week NATO training exercise designed to enhance interoperability between participating countries.
Named Cooperative Lancer and Longbow, the Vermont Army Guard Soldiers worked with fellow military men and women from more than a dozen NATO countries and NATO-partner countries.
The exercise was set up as a small base camp with Soldiers from each participating country housed in barracks together. Tents provided classrooms for the first day of training, but for the following days training was moved outside for a more practical hands-on approach.
The Vermont instructors worked hard to help lay the foundation for a common ground among the troops. Sand tables were used for larger-scale operations, such as base defense, which was detailed out with miniature buildings, vehicles, and toy soldiers.
An instructor set up a series of events and then invited the soldiers of the other countries to show how they would approach the situation. Then he would show them how the U.S. military would approach it.
"The purpose wasn't to tell a foreign nation that their military tactics were wrong," said Army Capt. Gene Enriquez, who was involved in the planning of the exercise. "It was to show other possible ways to complete a military task. We learned too."
Army Staff Sgt. Vernon Edmonds, an instructor with the 124th RTI, said a crawl-walk-run system of training was used that started off slowly going through the tasks and then moving at a faster pace as students became more proficient. And he said he would draw on the experiences of those he was teaching to further emphasize certain points.
"Some countries have been in many conflicts over the years and our training wasn't new," he said. "But for everybody I teach, I assume they have no prior knowledge. If they are quick to learn or have obvious experience, I adjust my approach and speed."
And many of those participating appreciated the role the Vermont Soldiers played in the exercise.
"The Vermont (Soldiers) have a high level of training and leadership," said German army Col. Hans Reimer. "I see it in their skills, capabilities, appearance, instruction, and caring for the troops. They managed to integrate with the other troops and yet still direct. I can see they love their job and they make the U.S.A. National Guard shine."
Reimer also said that if the idea of the exercise was to enhance interoperability between troops of different cultures and language, the success was also evident during off-duty time when impromptu volleyball or soccer games would take place. When the warm day cooled into night, the troops would often mingle at a nearby cantina and joke with each other while talking about the day's training.
Spc. Gary Whitt, with Company A, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment (Mountain), spent almost all his personal time at Cooperative Lancer making friends with the international soldiers. They would have coffee, talk about each other's homelands, play games, and trade interesting items. He said the personal friendship aspect is something that teaches things beyond tactical skills.
"What you learn here goes beyond tactical knowledge," he said. "You learn social skills that are invaluable for any deployment. In today's joint army there's people from all over the world. If you don't have the personal skills to overcome language barriers, you're putting the mission at risk. It's essential to be able to find common ground, even if it's mainly by pointing and using facial expressions."
Enriquez agreed that missions like Cooperative Lancer boil down to the ability to form relationships and work with anyone the Soldiers are paired with. Knowing how to compromise and adapt in a multi-national military setting will make any mission a success.
"I would like to see events like this with even more people," said Enriquez, adding he would like to see a battalion-sized element from the Vermont Army Guard involved in something like this. "How much more valuable is it to have a 100 of our lower enlisted be able to live with a 100 of the lower enlisted from Macedonia - to sleep in the same area, eat at the same tables and the same food, and hang out at the same place after work. We would impact each other from the ground up and form real relationships."
And building relationships was the greater point of the exercise.
"When we train together in missions like Lancer, both sides win," said Enriquez.