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Cooperative Osprey: Differences and Similarities

By Petty Officer 1st Class Jonathan E. Annis, USN
American Forces Press Service

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C., Sept. 5, 1996 – It's always been "us" and "them." "They" were part of the "Evil Empire," a cold, threatening place of strange languages, strange cultures, and just plain strangers.

How things have changed!

Cooperative Osprey '96, the 12-day exercise at this sprawling U.S. Marine base that ended Aug. 26, taught NATO peacekeeping standards to troops from the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe.

NATO was represented by the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. Participting Partnership for Peace nations were Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

The developing friendships were at least as valuable as the field tactics the country platoons used. Bridges were built between partner and NATO soldiers. At the base camp, uniformed and civilian interpreters, some first-generation immigrants themselves, spoke rapidly with the partner troops. Some of the partner soldiers spoke broken English as well.

"We talk about music, movie stars, food -- all sorts of things," said Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Cameron Leber, a cook with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines.

"I don't see a lot of big differences between the U.S. and Bulgarians," said Boris Iliev, a private in the Bulgarian army for four months. "We have the same problems, the same needs. You have the M-16 rifle and we have the AK-47. You are in NATO and we are not -- this is a difference," he said with a shrug. "In fact, however, soldiers are not different."

Going to and from the camp, the three NATO nations and 16 partner nations proudly displayed their distinctive uniforms, styles of march and cadence. As the days proceeded and the Eastern Europeans adjusted to the North Carolina heat, they went on early morning runs with the U.S. Marines. In a nearby field, partner soldiers learned about baseball and football. U.S. Marines learned about soccer and wrestling. At dinner, a partner soldier picked up a guitar and sang a native folk song. American country music fans rose to the challenge and strummed "Dueling Banjos."

With every class break, partner soldiers and Marines compared photographs of girlfriends and family. They shared jokes, although the punchline often needed explanation. Food was a universal item of discussion. Partner soldiers, unfamiliar at first, became veterans at opening, heating and eating the Meals Ready-to-Eat, or MREs, a food field ration that is part of the American military.

Trading souvenirs and coins also proved popular. Not many of the troops knew about exchange rates, but currency was often exchanged as keepsakes. Emblems, caps, T-shirts and medals were fair game. It was all in good natured fun, of course. No one seemed at all concerned about who got the better deal.

Lance Cpl. Allen Jackson of the 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, wanted to exchange a U.N. medal for a Latvian T-shirt or a coveted beret. "There is a lot of interest in items from the Soviet Union, and they seem to be interested in Marine insignias. I bought extra to give away!"

A curiosity to the partner troops, many of whom are considered low-paid conscripts, are the noncommissioned officers in NATO units. The concept of NCOs -- middle managers between officers and young soldiers -- is unusual to European conscripts. Taking directions from U.S. Marine sergeants was a new experience.

Sgt. Maj. Albert S. Wilson, sergeant major for Marine Forces, Atlantic, visited the field to observe the developing role of the partner nation NCOs. "Your platoon is dependent on your noncommissioned officers and their ability to get the message to the troops. Partner platoons are going to see that while they're out here and grow significantly because of it," he said.

More than just concerns about noncommissioned officers, the Cooperative Osprey experience is a lesson in coordination, cooperation and history.

"Before, there was a Cold War," said one Moldovan officer. "We didn't really understand the problems we were having. Today's example, where 19 nations have gotten together for this peacekeeping exercises in America, is a clear example that barricades from the Cold War have been removed."

(Petty Officer 1st Class Jonathan Annis serves with the U.S. Atlantic Command, Norfolk, Va.)

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