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Cadets visit Brigada Paracaidista–lessons in culture and language (2013)

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Our hard earned Airborne wings.

Our hard earned Airborne wings.

Eight Army ROTC Cadets from around the U.S. landed in Madrid, Spain June 1 with the missions of teaching Spanish soldiers tactical English, gaining a better understanding of Spanish culture, and earning our Spanish Airborne wings. These goals were achieved through countless hours in the classroom, various training environments, and visits to various cities in Spain.

Shortly after arriving we were plunged headlong into Spanish culture by enjoying a traditional lunch followed by a visit to the Sofia Renia Museum.

We visited several musuems to learn about Spanish history.

We visited several musuems to learn about Spanish history.

A few days later we were introduced to the soldiers we would accompany for the next few weeks. These Spanish paratroopers are part of the elite Brigada Paracaidista (BRIPAC) of the Spanish Army. The unit has been in existence since 1953 and has seen combat in multiple theaters such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and also as a quick reaction force (QRF) in Afghanistan.

We trained to the Spanish Army’s schedule beginning with a five to seven mile run in the mornings, followed by teaching English to the Spanish soldiers, and then either military training or a chance to experience the culture by traveling to nearby towns. On the weekends we travelled to Spanish cities accompanied by a few of the Spanish soldiers who acted as guides. These trips included visits to the Infantry Academy and the Army Museum in Toledo, the Artillery Academy and the Military Archives in Segovia, and to the unit museum on the base. Other visits included the historical cities of Madrid, Sevilla, and Barcelona.

Teaching our counterparts conversational English

Teaching our counterparts conversational English

Throughout the three weeks that we were with Spanish soldiers, we felt like we formed a brotherhood. Every day that we were together we began to grow closer to each other. One day in particular we jumped with the Spanish paratroopers, earning our Spanish Airborne wings, called Rokiski. The Spanish airborne soldiers also earned their U.S. Army Airborne wings. This day we put our lives in the hands of each other as we helped each other rig our parachutes in preparation for the jump. It was a great bonding experience. After we completed the jump we celebrated with an afternoon out to lunch. 

At the end of the mission we said our farewells and traded gifts with our new brothers-in-arms knowing that the wisdom we all gained on this once-in-a-lifetime mission gave us the cultural knowledge that we may someday need to complete a multi-national mission.

Our new friends

Our new friends

Rutgers University Cadet reflects on CULP mission to Vietnam (2013)

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1.IMG_1582By Cadet Kenneth Harrison; Rutgers University-Douglass College

As Army ROTC Cadets headed on a CULP mission to Vietnam, we spent some of the pre-deployment phase at Fort Knox, getting to know each other and our mission, We were actually the second rotation of the Vietnam CULP mission, and we believed that it would not be difficult for us to communicate with the people of Vietnam for mission purposes. However, our preconceptions, as they would be throughout our mission, were wrong.

Coming into Vietnam many of us had expectations of what we would see. Some of our expectations would be proven false, but some were accurate. A few of us had been to Vietnam before, but none of us had been to the North of the country. Many of us thought that the students would be more interested in learning the language due to their future missions, and not as interested in learning about the United States. We believed that because of a language and cultural barrier it would be difficult to truly establish a relationship with anyone in the short time that we had available. Many of the Cadets were unsure of what to think of how we would be perceived by our counterparts in Vietnam. Many of us expected a lot of animosity towards us first as Americans, and second, as representatives of the American Army.

The reality was much different. Upon stepping out of the airport we were instantly besieged with foreign-sensory overload. We knew there would be heat, but the first step out of the air-conditioned airport truly shocked us. We were hit by heat, extreme humidity, and smells and sites that we had never experienced before.

Local transportation includes not only buses and taxis, but other means. And  traffic laws are different from those we have in the U.S.

Local transportation includes not only buses and taxis, but other means. And traffic laws are different from those we have in the U.S.

The culture shocks continued as we piled into our bus and were greeted by Vietnam’s unique traffic “laws”. There were people passing our vehicle on all sides, crossing into oncoming traffic and dipping back into their lane just before collision. We repeatedly saw five or more people on a single motor bike. This would be one of the hardest things for us to adjust to during our stay.

During the first couple of days, we were completely immersed in the city of Hanoi. One of the first things we encountered was the aggressiveness of their salespeople. Due to our obvious foreign appearance we were frequently approached by sidewalk-vendors selling us anything from aesthetic fans to Zippo lighters. They would follow us for several blocks and at one time we had a crowd talk to us for 40 minutes attempting vigorously to sell us anything they could.

After our initial exploration we moved into the true execution of the mission, teaching English to officers in the Vietnamese military. The reception was completely and overwhelmingly warm—not what we expected. Our first encounter with the Vietnamese military was through a colonel, a panel of high-ranking officers and an interpreter in a very ornate and formal conference room with a large bust of Ho Chi Minh overlooking the proceedings.

For many of us, this was the realization of the importance and legitimacy of our mission. We walked into the classrooms and were greeted warmly and positively by all the participants. However, we found the first few days to be a challenge. Many of our ice-breaker games failed, and we had difficulty communicating. We were frequently met with “can you please speak slower?” Over the next few days, we learned what words our students could understand, and how we could communicate most effectively with them. At the same time we were focused on creating a positive and enjoyable learning environment.

As we got to know one another we exchanged stories, and even tried ourselves against each other at things like arm wrestling.

As we got to know one another we exchanged stories, and even tried ourselves against each other at things like arm wrestling.

During breaks is when we truly began to interact personally with our students. Class time was when we taught English, but during breaks they asked us to explain American culture while they explained their culture. They were fascinated by where we lived, our families, our girlfriends and boyfriends, and who we were. They were equally eager to show us pictures of their homes, their wives, their children, and their country which interested each of us. We wanted to know as much about Vietnam as they wanted to know about the United States. We were met with history lessons, language lessons, and culture lessons. Over the two weeks our bonds began to grow and our lessons became more involved and interesting. We were surprised at how attached we became to our students and how quickly the relationships formed between us and them.

Finally, we traveled the country. While traveling we learned more and more about the people of the Vietnam. We were amazed at the work ethic we saw.

Local villagers work in a rice field. We saw many people who had a strong work ethic.

Local villagers work in a rice field. We saw many people who had a strong work ethic.

While driving or riding through the nation we were exposed to farmers, working in extreme heat, waist deep in mud, dragging animals through the farms while cultivating rice, using the same techniques that have been efficiently refined for thousands of years. We saw stark differences in standards of living with shacks being placed across the streets from ornate elaborate beach resorts. We began to appreciate some of the systems for standardization and regulation that we have in our country such as the FDA and EPA that were missing here. Most importantly, we were able to see a country’s unique and developed history from its own perspective, independent of our own biases, allowing us to try to formulate a new point of view.boat2-2013-06-16 08.04.47

Our time in Vietnam has been important and has broadened our views. We know that this has been a fantastic learning opportunity for us as future leaders in the United States Army. It has given us the ability to learn to speak with people who not only do not know us, but may or may not understand us. We learned to adapt and use improvised methods to send and receive messages across a language barrier. We saw that Vietnam is completely different from how it has been portrayed by popular media; it is much more developed, vibrant, and complex.

We saw how they viewed their own national heroes when we went to visit the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. This allowed us to overcome the “boogeyman era” of the Cold War. It showed us that we could overcome our own preconceptions and that positive relations are possible–many of us were as worried about our own reactions as we were about theirs.

The CULP mission to Vietnam is incredibly important in the current political climate of Asia. We also know that since the Vietnamese military is investing a lot to teach these officers English that they will be at the forefront of future relations with the United States and it is imperative that they are given a positive image from the beginning.

Most importantly, this mission shows that even after years of some of the most hostile conflicts of the twentieth century, that peace and a positive, mutually beneficial, and long-lasting relationship is possible and well on its way. 2013-06-07 13.47.42