Sixty soldiers, including more than a dozen company commanders, assigned to the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, honed their ability to work through conflict through a unique partnership with the volunteer Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County.
The role of the Army installation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has led to friction with South Sound peace activists. The partnership allowed people trained to resolve conflict in vastly different ways to find common ground and work toward a common goal.
“It’s a meeting of two worlds, really,” said Evan Ferber, the center’s director and founder.
The training reflects the new approach the U.S. military is taking as it fights counterinsurgencies among civilian populations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, said during a speech before the Center for a New American Security that securing and serving the civilian population is key.
“This is of enormous importance as we go to Afghanistan and recall that this is the graveyard of empires,” he said, according to a transcript posted on the center’s Web site. “It is a place that has never taken kindly to would-be conquerors, and we must be partners there, good neighbors, and all of the rest of that as opposed to dominating or wanting to take over.”
In the past six years, between 70 and 100 Fort Lewis soldiers have completed the 40-hour mediation training offered twice a year by the center. With the support of its commander, Col. Harry Tunnell IV, the Destroyer Brigade sought to expand that relationship to assist company commanders who will work with dozens of village leaders in the two provinces under the brigade’s control and resolve disputes involving people and property.
The training was held at Fort Lewis over two days in June, a short time before the soldiers boarded a plane headed overseas. It served two purposes: to provide the soldiers tools to help resolve disputes with Afghan civilians and to improve the working relationship between the team of soldiers that sit in those discussions – the company commander, a senior noncommissioned officer who leads the preparation for these talks and takes notes during the exchange, and a junior soldier trained in the local language and culture.
Maj. Cory Delger, who manages the brigade’s negotiations training program, said the company commanders might not have a lot of experience dealing with complicated, cross-cultural situations. In addition, he said brigade leaders noted shortcomings in how they used their assistants in bringing about positive outcomes. For instance, a junior soldier can be intimidated when advising a commanding officer, and the senior soldiers can think the younger one has little to offer.
“We wanted to kind of eliminate those barriers,” Delger said in a telephone interview from Iraq.
Going into the training, Delger said the soldiers had doubts, some feeling it was “soft, mushy stuff,” but those concerns were erased somewhat after they observed its practical application.
Oriana Lewis, the center’s training manager, said in an interview in July that it was a different teaching experience for her.
“They were the most resistant because it was so foreign, and simultaneously they were the most invested students I’ve taught because they were listening like their lives depended on it.”
The harsh reality of war was brought home to the center with word last week that Capt. John Hallett III, who participated in the training, was one of four Fort Lewis soldiers killed in the blast of improvised explosive device. Nine soldiers from the brigade have died since their arrival to Afghanistan last month.
Lewis said volunteers remembered Hallett, 30, a husband and father of three children, including a newborn daughter, for “his conscientiousness, willingness to risk trying new skills and warm smile.”
The final exercise of the training program involved the teams of soldiers meeting with a tribal council featuring role players hired by the Army.
In one training scenario, the soldiers attempt to resolve a dispute involving an injury to a woman in the Afghan village.
The woman stepped on a land mine, and soldiers rushed to her aid. The council, reacting to rumors spread by the Taliban, believed the Americans planted the land mine and assaulted the woman.
Video taken of the exchange show council members yelling and interrupting as the commander attempted to explain the situation in measured tones.
“I never had to deal with anything this bad at West Point,” Capt. Aaron Parks told the Northwest Guardian, Fort Lewis’ official newspaper.
The training scenario isn’t too far from what the commanders are facing on the ground now.
“They’re pretty good about spreading disinformation,” Delger said of the Taliban. “This society is word of mouth.”
The major said the Army is trying to develop conduits to the civilian population to thwart the rumor mongering. In the meantime, soldiers will rely on these skills.
Among them is Capt. Christopher Chaffin.
“It made us think, instead of initially reacting to things that we’re presented with; just kind of pull back and ask questions, which sometimes as soldiers we don’t do. It got us out of our element and gave us the additional tools we’re going to be able to take and use while we’re deployed,” he said, according to a news release provided by the dispute resolution center.
Soldiers who participated in the training were unavailable for interviews.
The training validated for center volunteers the applicability and value of the skills used every day in Olympia and surrounding communities.
Anna Shelton, the center’s development manager, said it showcased the “think locally, act globally” mantra.
Added Ferber: “Now we’re two or three degrees of separation from an Afghan civilian. It’s quite awesome when we think of it that way.”
Christian Hill: 360-754-5427