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Yoga, Curry Make for Good Army Training

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

CAMP BUNDELA, India, Oct. 30, 2009 – It’s 6 a.m. and as the sun rises, U.S. Army Sgt. Brandon Vacchelli sits on a mat in the grass, cross-legged, eyes closed and index and thumb fingers pressed together with his palms facing up.

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Army Pfc. Pherelle Fowler, with 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, stretches during yoga class at Camp Bundela, India, Oct. 24, 2009. During the two-week exercise, U.S. soldiers participated in Indian sports, ate Indian food and participated in other cultural events. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III

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Hummmm. Hummmm, he murmurs.

Off and on for the past two weeks, Vacchelli and others in the 2nd Squadron, 14th Calvary Regiment, took off their running shoes and traded their standard Army physical training for a little inner peace.

Sports included hitting, or trying to hit, a white ball with a polo mallet through a goal, while riding a bicycle.

And hamburgers and fries were swapped with mutton curry and naan.

The soldiers deployed here to train with the Indian army’s 7th Mechanized Infantry Battalion. Dubbed “Yudh Abhyas,” loosely translated as war preparation, it is the largest military exercise to date with the Indians. The two armies soldiered side by side, firing weapons and trading equipment. But perhaps the most valuable lessons learned were not those on the battlefield.

Today’s U.S. military is no stranger to working alongside those from other countries. In Afghanistan, alone, more than 40 country’s militaries are in the fight. In Iraq, while most troops have cleared out of combat outposts, U.S. soldiers still serve as advisors for the Iraqi army.

Learning to bridge language barriers and cultural gaps has become as necessary as practicing marksmanship for today’s troops.

“We are not the only culture on the globe,” said Army Lt. Col. Jim Isenhower, commander of the 2nd-14th. “As Americans, it is important that we recognize that there are different perspectives, and different ways to think about things. Perhaps the most valuable lesson our soldiers will take from this is an ability to recognize a competing or a different perspective and understand that they may not agree with it but it’s something they must incorporate in their decision making and how they interact with others.”

The Indian army embraced the American soldiers from the first day, Isenhower said. What began with simple handshakes and some slight awkwardness turned into strong friendships, he said.

The troops were treated to special dinners and dancing. They participated in the local Divali celebration, the Hindu festival of lights.

By the end of the training, troops were trading e-mails, and becoming friends on Facebook.

Troops can train on maneuvers or weapons skills on almost any range. But it was the cultural exchange that can’t be replicated, Isenhower said.

“Recognizing cultural differences is something our Army has become much more proficient at over the course of the last decade, but this was a perfect time to try to incorporate those lessons,” he said.

Bridging the culture gap quickly put the troops on a faster track when it came time to work together.

Isenhower said he was surprised at how quickly the two armies were able to integrate on the battlefield. By the end of the exercise, the two were working through complex, synchronized military operations with soldiers from each army integrated at every level.

“This is a professional army,” Isenhower said. “It is extremely strong and extremely capable. And that has been different than our experience in training up other armies that we’ve worked closely with over the past couple of years.

“In this case, we are learning as much from the Indian army as they are learning from us. They have been fighting counterinsurgency for 20 years. We’ve been at it about eight. So we bring a lot of current tactics, techniques and procedures, and yet they do, too.”

Army 1st Sgt. Joseph Messier with A Troop said he has worked with 16 other militaries during his career. Even so, Messier admitted to being a little hesitant at the start. It was his first trip to India, his first taste of curry and he had never attempted yoga.

The friendliness of the Indian soldiers won him over, Messier said.

“They reached their hand out first and, like the good Americans we are, we smiled back and started joining right in, and built a lot of friendships,” he said.

But it wasn’t just the Indians’ friendliness that impressed Messier.

“This is the most professional military I’ve ever encountered outside of ours,” he said. “Their individual skills are excellent, their collective skills are well trained and their soldiers are well disciplined.

“I’m glad they’re our friends. I’m glad they’re on our side,” he said.

Army 1st Lt. Joseph Lewandowski, the squadron’s information operations officer, said that some troops were hesitant at first to try the food. Some even opted for field rations, rather than give the spicy food a try.

Two chow halls were set up, one offering American food and the other offering Indian cuisine. Eventually, most U.S. soldiers tried the Indian specialties, and liked them.

Chow time became a culture class for those wanting to know what was in the dish, it regional influence and how it was made.

“They would authentically be intrigued about their culture and ask them questions rather than just walk by in a regular cafeteria,” Lewandowski said.

Interacting on the sports field, Lewandowski said, improves interaction on the battlefield. Within the construct of healthy sportsmanship, you begin to know your teammates, regardless of what uniform they wear.

You begin to look at them differently, he said. You begin to trust them.

It is then that the two armies can truly begin working together.

“I think without the culture piece, this exercise would be just that, an exercise. There would be nothing else besides coming out here, doing the work, getting it done and going home,” Lewandowski said. “By having the cultural part, you actually integrate with them and learn to appreciate their abilities, skills and who they are as a person.”

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Related Sites:
Photo Essay: U.S., Indian Soldiers Share Culture, Military Skills
U.S. Army Pacific Command Special Report: Yudh Abhyas 2009
U.S. Army Pacific Command

Related Articles:
U.S.-Indian Armies Wrap Up Historic Exercise

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Lt. Col. Jim Isenhower, commander of 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, talks with Indian army officers following an early morning exercise Oct. 25, 2009. Soldiers from each army were integrated down to the squad level throughout the two-week exercise at Camp Bundela, India.  
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