June 27 was a gloomy day in the Third World country of Atropia. Heavy rain harassed the country’s occupants that morning, soaking their boots and the hem of their robes. When some Atropians spied uniformed figures trudging through the soggy grass, they greeted them with ecstasy, grateful for the relief the uniform represented. Others eyed the camouflaged clothing with suspicion, afraid of broken promises and destruction.
But Atropia is not real. It is a simulated country nestled in the woods as a part of the Leader Development and Assessment Course at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. The Atropians aresecond lieutenants in costume, and LDAC Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Cadets act as U.S. troops. The role-playing exercise, known as Cultural Awareness, is meant to test the Cadets’ preparedness when encountering different cultures.
Lt. Col. Lorenzo Rios, chief of Cultural Awareness committee, said Cadets should understand that culture shapes how everyone sees the world.
“Here we give them techniques to be respectful, but at the same time be thorough and ensure that their folks are safe while they conduct their missions,” said Rios.
The training focused on three sections: key leader engagement, atmospherics and search and rule of war. At each station, a squad entered an Atropian village while their fellow Cadets watched from bleachers. Oftentimes, they made mistakes or committed cultural faux pas, causing them to pay the price with uncooperative or hostile Atropians.
Platoon mentors allowed about 10 minutes for the first run-through. They then addressed all the Cadets in classroom-like instruction on how to handle the situation.
Sometimes the teaching forced Cadets to regard ethics, such as what they would do if they gained information that someone who planted an improvised explosive device that killed and injured some of their squad was hiding in a village. Other times, the Cadets had to consider a language barrier while drinking tea with villagers before offering assistance to their area.
After instruction, the squad got a second chance to improve their method of dealing with an awkward or tense setting.
Col. David Chase, deputy commander of tactics, said troops have always faced cultural differences when going abroad, and Cadets’ knowledge of a culture can often save their lives and innocent civilians’ lives.
“It’s sometimes just as important not to fire the weapon,” said Chase.
Cadet Kevin Otwoma, Bravo Co., 2nd Regiment, a student at the University of Central Florida and from Orlando, Fla., said the training taught what an essential role understanding culture can play in future missions.
“Maybe if we understand each other, we wouldn’t have so many conflicts,” said Otwoma.
Unfortunately, the reality of warfare is there are individuals who want to perpetuate violence. Rios emphasized while knowing a culture could help with familiarity of customs and situational awareness, it is still important to be safe.
“Being culturally sensitive doesn’t mean you have to compromise security,” said Rios.
At midday, Cadets left the fictitious land of Atropia, taking with them lessons that could one day keep them safe and help them represent the U.S. Army as an edifice of hope and benevolence to the rest of the world.
Story by Monica Spees.