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Joint Contact Teams Reach Out to East

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

STUTTGART, Germany, April 13, 1998 – In the past five years, a relatively small number of American service members have had a huge impact on Central and Eastern Europe's emerging democracies.

They've brought American values and democratic ideals to lands long locked behind the Iron Curtain.

Under U.S. European Command's Joint Contact Team Program, military liaison teams set up more than 5,000 military-to-military events for 100,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen who were once former adversaries. One step -- one contact -- at a time, the three- to five-member joint service teams helped crack open the door between East and West.

"The collapse of the Soviet Union opened a window of opportunity for military-to-military contact," said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Randy Brickell, deputy program chief. "At the time, there were no U.S. embassies in most of these countries."

Started in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the program quickly expanded to the Baltics and other nations, Brickell said. Promoting stability, democratization and professional militaries under civilian control was the primary goal.

Today, American military teams work in 13 countries -- Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. A team pulled out of Albania during internal conflicts there, but U.S. officials are planning to return, Brickell said. Teams also are slated to go to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the near future.

DoD has allocated $15 million a year for the contact team program through fiscal year 2001. The budget provides another $5.3 million a year for reserve component personnel, who conduct about 25 percent of the program's events.

U.S. team members work primarily with the local ministry of defense and general staff, developing considerable top level access and influence, Brickell said. Most teams have four members: an O-6 team chief, an O-5 deputy, an O-3 operations officer and a staff NCO. For the top two, it's a one-year assignment. Junior members serve six months.

The Americans coordinate five types of events: traveling contact teams which teach U.S. business practices; familiarization visits, where host nation military go to the United States or Western Europe; conferences for multiple countries; staff officer or NCO exchanges; and ship visits.

In the Baltics, for example, Latvian officers and senior NCOs recently met with professional development instructors from 7th U.S. Army Reserve Command to discuss decision-making models and military analysis. Members of the Estonian Defense League met in February with family support experts from the Maryland National Guard to discuss insurance benefits, women's issues and morale and welfare programs.

Marksmanship experts from the U.S. Marine Corps visited the Lithuanian NCO academy for 10 days in February to discuss curriculum development, advanced techniques for small arms, night vision equipment and immediate action drills.

Most recently, Diane Disney, deputy assistant defense secretary for civilian personnel policy, visited Slovenia and Croatia March 29 to April 3. She briefed host nation officials on managing and safeguarding personnel data, contracting, firing, reductions in force, pay, promotions and relocations.

Brickell said one of the program's current objectives is promoting closer ties with NATO. Today, teams are helping NATO's newest invitees, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, upgrade military infrastructure to meet alliance standards.

Four Polish air force officers recently visited Taszar, Hungary, to tour an upgraded airfield. Poland plans to reduce the number of military airfields it operates from 55 to 15. So far, only one is NATO-compatible. Six Czech Republic air force personnel also toured the base, focusing on air traffic control equipment, procedures for air space management and other aspects of airfield operations.

Hungarian officials recently traveled to Ohio airfields used for both civil and military operations. Hungarian officials plan to keep a military presence at the Taszar airfield so that, after NATO completes operations in Bosnia, it can be rapidly used again for future NATO operations.

Since 1992, active and reserve component team members have introduced Soviet-style militaries to the concept of having chaplains, an NCO corps and a code of military justice. They've brought in lawyers to help guarantee Eastern bloc soldiers' human rights.

Reserve component team members also started a program linking former Soviet states and Eastern bloc countries with Reserve and National Guard units back home. The State Partnership Program has since created long-term, grass-roots military and civilian bonds from Tennessee to Bulgaria, Croatia to Minnesota.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Gagnon, North Central Group chief, said the Joint Contact Team Program has gone through three phases. After the wall came down and the teams first went in, he said, they spent their first year trying to gain the access and influence needed so host nation military officials would trust them.

Instead of working out of U.S. embassies, teams sought closer ties with host nation militaries, Gagnon said. "We wanted to be in the ministry of defense, to get them to trust us and to know that we're there, not to force anything upon them, but to get that access."

The next phase involved what Gagnon calls "the shotgun approach." "They wanted to know everything about the U.S. military, and we tried to show them everything," he said. "We were doing a broad range of events, but there wasn't any focus. They didn't know what they wanted. They didn't know how they were going to restructure their militaries. They didn't know how militaries work under civilian control. We've gone beyond that now."

After five or six years' freedom, the nations are more able to decide in which direction they're headed, Gagnon said. Once they determine where they need help, team members direct program resources to those areas. Still, he said, each country's transition from centralized, Soviet control to independent, self direction is at various stages. The past year saw some stumbling blocks and bottlenecks, he said.

"You still had countries where the chief of the defense forces had to approve every single event before it happened. In other countries, we aren't even allowed, in most cases, to talk to the people who want to receive an event without going through several layers of bureaucracy. Then you go to places like the Baltics, Slovenia and Slovakia and it's much more decentralized."

In some countries, like Romania, Brickell added, the military's enthusiasm and desire for knowledge continually needs to be throttled back. They don't hesitate to ask for help, he said.

"You don't have to encourage them at all," Brickell continued. "They frequently ask for things that are outside the bounds of the program. We can't, for example, do events on how the United States negates integrated air defense systems. We had to say, 'Sorry, we don't share that information with our closest allies.'" The Romanians are "just really interested in learning about how the United States does things," Brickell said.

Public relations, dealing with international media, providing military conscripts a decent quality of life -- host nation military officials have had a lot to learn, Gagnon said.

For the first time in half a century, they've had to produce transparent budget requests. In the past, funds were centrally controlled; they never had to ask for money or justify the request. They've also had to translate strategic and national objectives into a military strategy that civilian leaders would support.

One of the features of the contact team program, Gagnon pointed out, is its ability to rapidly respond to host nation requests. "Most U.S. assistance programs take time to plan. They're planned for three or four years out. We can react short term to a requirement."

When the U.S. Security Assistance Program was slated to deliver a large number of excess M-14 rifles to Latvia, for instance, the U.S. ambassador asked the military liaison team chief for help. The ambassador's concern was that the Latvians' idea of weapon security involved handing rifles to soldiers to take home at night. Within two weeks, the American team brought in U.S. Marines to show the Latvians how to account for and secure weapons.

Many contact team events, past and present, have focused on developing NCO corps in nations which, in the past, only had officers and conscripts. "Most of these nations have a long way to go in creating a viable NCO corps," Brickell said.

"Their lieutenants, captains and majors were really what we would call their NCO. They were doing NCO business," Gagnon explained. "It's very difficult for [these nations], not only to develop an NCO corps, but to take those duties away from people who have been doing them for years and years. Not only do you have to make NCOs, you have to retrain the lieutenants, captains and the majors. It's going to be a long process."

Hungary recently sent an NCO to work with a Virginia National Guard infantry unit providing security at the Sava River Bridge. During his second week, the sergeant led a recon patrol and directed the patrol's link-up with and passage through a Hungarian engineer unit. After the training, program officials reported, the sergeant enthusiastically said it was the most responsibility he had ever been entrusted with.

Initially, U.S. military liaison teams "were the only military-to-military business in town," Gagnon said. Since then, programs such as security assistance, defense cooperation and NATO's Partnership for Peace have entered the picture.

"We are trying to integrate our goals and objectives with those of the other programs so that we take them from a basis of nothing up to a point where they can get the most benefit from the other programs, whether they be training or a Partnership for Peace exercise," Gagnon said. "We try to have each program build upon each other."

English language training, for example, is the No. 1 priority for these countries because it's the language of NATO, Gagnon said. "We can't provide English language training. The security assistance people do that. But we can show them how the U.S. conducts English training."

In the end, contact team officials hope to put themselves out of business. Brickell said they had devised a plan to phase out of the three NATO candidate countries about the time they're expected to join the alliance. "But the host nations and the U.S. ambassadors in those countries want to keep us," he said. "They like us so much, we're a victim or our own success. We will eventually work our way out."

Seeing attitudes change and detecting visible signs of progress is exciting, Brickell said. "It takes time. It takes a lot of money, which most of these countries don't have right now, but they are definitely making progress."

An intangible benefit of the teams' work is that it promotes understanding among the militaries, Brickell concluded. "You find out the Romanian and Estonians are not very different from us. They've got the same kind of problems, they can't train often enough, there's never enough readiness money."

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