Montana National Guard Soldiers train for cultural sensitivity

The American soldier accused of a weekend massacre of 16 Afghan civilians is said to be waiting in a pretrial confinement facility in Kuwait.

The killings have led to outrage and Afghan President Hamid Karzai calling for an early draw-down of American forces in the country. Meanwhile, Montana National Guard troops are still training for future deployments to that decade-long war. Over the last few years the military has been putting greater emphasis teaching greater sensitivity toward Arab cultures.

And they’re doing it here at home.

A squad of soldiers was gathering around a map hand-drawn into the dirt and gravel of a training complex at Helena’s Fort Harrison on Thursday. They’re part of the 484th Military Police Company out of Malta, Glasgow and Billings. They’re deploying later this year.They were practicing what’s called a SWEAT assessment (Sewer, Water, Electricity, Academics, Trash) of an Afghan village.

“They get with the village elders, they talk about the infrastructure of the community,” said Trainer Sergeant Benjamin Wlaysewski.

The squad moves out for the assessment Hiking up a gravel road, they begin to split up as they reached the mock village down below. Another group was standing outside the village’s central structure–a multi-story brick building covered with the marks of white paintballs. These were guard soldiers too, but they weredressed as Afghan civilians for this exercise.

These assessments require the troops walk a fine line. They want to find out about failing infrastructure–find out how the U.S. may be able to help–without making promises. Trainer Sergeant Wlaysewski says this exercise strives to win-over communities on the fence about Americans. Soldiers have to seem friendly without seeming soft.

“It’s all about counter-insurgency, it’s about winning the hearts and minds. Obviously we have to fulfill our soldierly duties as well, we have to be able to defend ourselves, complete the missions in that sense. But at the same time we’re doing everything that we can to try to pull everyone over to our side,” he said.

The squad surrounded the village and a few soldiers moved to greet the civilians–using rudimentary Arabic.

The villagers each had a part to play. Some were friendly towards Americans, some weren’t. Staff Sergeants Bryan Barnes and Erin Sanderson went into the brick building to talk with some members of the tribe. They find the village was short on water, they had problems with their sewage.

“What can you do for me?” asked one of the villagers.

“What can I do for you?” Barnes repeated. “I personally cannot do anything for you directly. I have to speak to the one that is in charge of me. he has to talk to the one in charge of him.”

One of the villagers made some suspicious remarks and left the building.

Outside things started going south.

A man came out of a hut with a rifle. He kept walking toward the soldiers after they warned him. So they shot him. Other villagers reacted. The mission instantly becames more about securing the area. Staff Sergeant Barnes says it put the new friendship the soldiers were trying to build at risk. But he was optimistic.

“Safety of my squad and my guys is more important. Safety of the village elder and his family is the most important thing. If we can build off the safety issue, keeping them safe. It’ll help us out in the long run in getting the information we need  and helping support them and making their village a better place,” Barnes said.

Montana National Guard Deputy Public Affairs Officer Dan Bushnell says when the war in Afghanistan began, the military quickly identified a lack of an ability to connect to this very different culture. He says they’ve been working hard to change that.

“It’s as critical as having a soldier skill like being able to shoot your weapon or to be able to drive a Humvee,” Bushnell said.

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