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Top U.S. NCO Experiences South African Army Training

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

HEIDELBURG, South Africa, Feb. 13, 2006 – The U.S. military's top noncommissioned officer got an introduction to "adventure-based training" -- South Africa style -- during a visit here today.

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South African army Staff Sgt. Gidion Basnere (right) instructs U. S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on correct use of the "Fixed Installation Rifle Shooting System" for the R-4 rifle Feb. 13 at "Army Gymnasium," a mid-level South African army training base. The device is designed to teach fundamentals of marksmanship before trainees go to a live range. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem
  

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U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is visiting South African military services this week. During a visit to "Army Gymnasium," a mid-level South African army training base here, Gainey experienced ROPES -- Reality-Oriented Practical Experience Systems -- training.

"It's all about taking you out of your comfort zone," South African army Warrant Officer Rudi Victor said, explaining that ROPES training builds confidence, teamwork and communication skills. South African warrant officers are equivalent to sergeants major in the U.S. Army.

Participants take part in a series of exercises designed to make them work together and clearly communicate their intent. In one exercise, a team of soldiers passes an individual over their heads -- completely turning the individual end-over-end vertically in the process. In another, one team member closes his eyes and drops into the arms of another team member.

Gainey participated in most exercises demonstrated. He said the training was a good drill that led to trusting a total stranger -- in his case Warrant Officer 1 Joe Tshabalala, the sergeant major of the South African army, who was Gainey's partner for many of the exercises. "It was simple," he said, "but with a lot of impact in terms of teaching troops to trust each other."

Low and high ropes courses with increasingly challenging obstacles make up another part of the training. "These are man-made obstacles that we have put there to simulate the things mother nature put in your way," Victor, a course facilitator, said.

Some obstacles are made to be impassable, Victor said, explaining they are designed to teach soldiers how to deal with failure. "Because that's real life," he said.

A highlight of the day was the "Rambo bridge," a 1.5- to 2-foot-wide log mounted between two trees a little more than 9 meters (30 feet) off the ground. Wearing a safety harness, participants climb a tree with iron "U"s pounded into it as rungs, then walk across the log and ring a bell on the opposite end. The log is round, with no flat surface to walk on. A facilitator holds a belay rope for safety.

Gainey made it across on his second try. Two senior U.S. NCOs traveling with him also made it across. A former airborne soldier, Gainey said he is not afraid of heights, so he wasn't worried initially. "But once you got up there and saw how narrow the log is, you realize how carefully you need to focus," he said.

Jokingly, he added, "What I was really thinking was: 'Am I going to be the first American to die here?'"

"It was an exhilarating experience," U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Steve Soanes, who provides security for Gainey when he travels, said. Soanes practically ran across the log without a moment's hesitation, wowing a small crowd of spectators.

Victor explained the exercise is designed to help soldiers deal with their fears. "We lead you through the process of getting past your first tendency of 'I can't,'" he said. "We get you through to 'I can.'"

Gainey said the bridge is an "effective, low-cost tool to build soldiers' confidence."

Soldiers need to challenge themselves in stressful situations to be successful leaders, Victor said. "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got," he said. "In layman's terms: You will be a boring person.

"To really learn you must experience things," he added. "You can't be an armchair spectator."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageWarrant Officer 1 Joe Tshabalala, the sergeant major of the South African army, prepares to catch U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a trust-building exercise during a demonstration of South African army training Feb. 13 at "Army Gymnasium," a mid-level South African army training base. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageU.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, puts his faith in a group of South African and U.S. soldiers in a trust-building exercise during a demonstration of South African army training Feb. 13 at "Army Gymnasium," a mid-level South African army training base. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageU.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, crosses the "Rambo bridge," a log mounted between two trees roughly 9 meters (30 feet) high, Feb. 13 at "Army Gymnasium," a mid-level South African army training base. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageU.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, climbs up to the "Rambo bridge," a log mounted between two trees roughly 9 meters (30 feet) high, Feb. 13 at "Army Gymnasium," a mid-level South African army training base. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSouth African army Sgt. David Nel (left) and Warrant Officer (Sgt. Maj.) Rudi Victor (right) secure a harness on U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before he crosses the "Rambo bridge," a log mounted between two trees roughly 9 meters (30 feet) high, Feb. 13 at "Army Gymnasium," a mid-level South African army training base. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem  
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