Exotic Lands Lure Military Experts
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
GARMISCH, Germany, Aug. 12, 1998 Mare's milk in Kazakhstan. Ram's testicles in Eastern Turkey. Lamb organs in Turkmenistan.
These are some of the culinary oddities offered the hale and hearty American service members who become Eurasian foreign area officers. These adventurous cultural and linguistic specialists known as "FAOs" (pronounced, FAY-ohs) are the link between the U.S. military and the international arena.
Eurasian FAOs serve as defense attaches, security assistance officers and special staff officers at unified and specified commands, the Pentagon and the White House. They are often the sole American military representative in the former-Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact nations.
FAOs prepare for their international jobs in an 18-month program at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies here. Co-sponsored by the United States and Germany, the school opened in 1993 to teach democratic principles to civilian and military leaders of nations once part of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. At that time, the center also absorbed the facilities and FAO training mission of a U.S. Army Russian language and regional studies institute.
During the Cold War, the Russian institute students were the only future FAOs who couldn't study in-country, explained Todd Arnold, a Marshall Center operations specialist. Everybody else could go to a U.S.-friendly country to improve their language and cultural skills -- to include Chinese specialists, who went to Taiwan.
The institute created an artificial atmosphere using former Soviet soldiers and defectors as instructors. At best, institute students would occasionally travel to Moscow or St. Petersburg, Russia; Kiev, Ukraine; Minsk, Belarus; or possibly the Central Asian republics. Then the Soviet Union collapsed.
"When the wall came down, opportunities popped up that were just unheard of a few years before," Arnold said. For example, he said, Marshall Center student FAOs since 1995 have helped establish embassies in newly independent ex-Soviet states. They've also worked on cooperative threat reduction in the former Soviet nuclear states of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Military-to-military contact continues to expand, Arnold said. About eight FAOs have graduated from the Russian-U.N. peacekeeping school outside Moscow. Two Americans have gone to the Ukrainian ground forces academy outside Kiev. At any given time three FAOs work in Bosnia as liaison officers with the Russian brigade. In February, the first American officer graduated from the Russian diplomatic academy.
In the past, primarily Army officers trained as FAOs. About the time the Berlin Wall fell, the Marine Corps began sending officers to Garmisch as well. In 1996, then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry directed all U.S. services to begin training foreign area officers. Arnold said Marshall Center officials hope the Air Force and Navy will soon join in the program.
Because the Marshall Center's prime mission is to educate mid-level and senior military and civilian leaders from more than 30 Central and Eastern European and Central Asian nations, it's "the heart of a whole new world" for FAOs, according to U.S. Army Col. Mark Beto, dean of the center's College of International and Security Studies.
A 28-year veteran and a 1980 Russian institute graduate, Beto served two tours at the U.S. military liaison mission in Potsdam, Germany, and a tour in Moscow as an assistant attache. The FAO program then was good, he said, but nothing like today's.
"Now that things have opened up and the Marshall Center has been founded, it's like bringing the former Soviet Union to the FAOs here," Beto said. "It's a marriage made in heaven."
The FAO students focus on military and political history and other regional topics. They also play a major role in the foreign officials' education, he said. Each FAO student sponsors a senior foreign student.
"They become training aids for each other," Beto said. "They pick each other's brains, speak each other's languages.
"If you're a [Marshall Center] graduate and you go back to Uzbekistan, or wherever you come from, what are you going to remember the most? Is it the lecture on budget formulation you had one morning, or is it going to be the conversations you had and the insights you gained standing over a barbecue grill, drinking a beer and talking to an American officer? I think it's the latter," he asserted. "Barriers break down. They start relating to one another. Friendships are developed which will live on."
A highlight of the FAO program is in-country internships that range from 30 days to six months. Relationships built in Garmisch contribute to the success of these internships. For instance, Beto said, many interns have returned from Central Asia swearing they'd never have made it if not for the friends they'd made at the Marshall Center.
Friendships don't come easily in the former Soviet-dominated states, particularly if the relationship begins on a strictly formal basis, he said. "But if you're taken around by the U.S. ambassador or the deputy chief of mission and you see someone you know in the ministry of defense, it makes all the difference in the world," Beto said. "You've just erased six months you would have had to spend building a relationship."
This year, the Marshall Center began offering courses for mid-level foreign officers and civilians, who happen to be about the same age as the FAO students. Beto said this is where the United States is truly investing in the future.
"It will be years before we really understand the seeds we've sown here," he said. "We think we've got a lot of synergy now between the FAOs and the older colonels and lieutenant colonels. Just think what's going to happen when these guys grow up together here. Close friendships will develop, and who knows? There may be a crisis someday and the key to resolving it might be a couple of Marshall Center graduates."
Army Lt. Col. Douglas Ben Reed heads the FAO Management Office at the Marshall Center. A veteran Army ordnance officer with more than 17 years' service, he chose to become a Soviet FAO as his secondary specialty. A 1992 Russian institute grad, he served two years at U.S. Army Europe headquarters as project manager for military-to-military programs with Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Slovenia.
Eurasian FAOs are in more demand than ever, he said. "Our job opportunities have expanded greatly. Before, you just had one attache office in Moscow. Now there are 15 embassies and attaches," he added.
All FAOs at the Russian institute received exactly the same training, but now they can gain experience in Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Bosnia and any number of other places.
"Now you're not getting a cookie cutter product," Reed said. "That's going to benefit us in the long run, because four years from now when we're looking to fill the attache position in Kyrgyzstan, we've had three or four guys who have already been there. That diversity is good."
Army Lt. Col. John Sharp, FAO operations officer at the center, echoed his colleague's view. "There's nothing better for building self-confidence than doing it. They get exposure to the jobs they'll have in three or four years," he said.
Sharp said most FAOs are mid-range captains or junior majors, while many of the attaches are senior majors to lieutenant colonels. New FAOs may serve as assistant attaches and as acting defense attaches. In some cases, senior captains may be the senior U.S. military representative in a country.
A field artillery officer with 18 years of service, Sharp was in the Russian institute's last two-year class. By the time he graduated in 1992, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact were history.
"It was a very interesting time and a very frustrating time to be a student," he said. "We spent our time watching the whole thing fall down. We didn't envision all the security assistance programs that are now going on within the former Soviet Union. We didn't foresee the explosion [of assignments] that there would be."
After a brief stint in Washington, Sharp went to Baku, Azerbaijan, where the United States was establishing diplomatic relations. He was the sole military representative to the newly independent state. At the time, he said, the U.S. embassy was a "standup operation" on the fourth floor of the old Intourist Hotel.
"Those were wild and crazy days, because the embassies were all in hotels somewhere, and they were all building offices, building relations and getting to know people," Sharp recalled. "The whole embassy was scattered around the hotel, which we shared with the Russian embassy, Amoco and Pennzoil, who'd booked up this hotel. I actually lived in a room with the Xerox paper and all the printer cartridges. The communications room was next door. The U.S. ambassador was downstairs."
Being the only U.S. service member in a country or region is not unusual for FAOs, Sharp noted. There are still one-man attache shops in places like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The FAOs there do normal attache functions, as well as security assistance officer functions, he said.
As defense attaches, FAOs meet with host-nation military counterparts, help organize military exercises, and in some cases, help transfer surplus U.S. military equipment. They serve alone or with an operations sergeant.
"More and more types of activities are happening all the time," Sharp said. "Training teams are coming in. They're probably busier now than I was at that time. They have more responsibility."
Serving alone carries weighty responsibility, because an FAO may be the only American local residents ever meet. "The statements you make, your conduct, demeanor and professionalism, the impression you leave, may influence a lot of key people and a lot of ordinary people. You can do a lot of good or a lot of damage," Sharp said.
During a 48-hour train trip through Central Asia to Siberia, for example, an American doctor traveling with a group of FAO students made a lasting positive impression.
"A passenger cut his hand rather badly," Sharp said. "The doctor treated him and then checked on him during days that followed. He established a friendship with some ordinary Russians from the depths of Siberia who had never met an American and probably will never again."
Even though Sharp is an administrator now rather than an in-country FAO, he still travels occasionally to the exotic lands where FAOs serve. He recently took a group of students to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, where, he said, the defense ministry treated them like kings. The hosts slaughtered a lamb to barbecue and put all its organs into a big cast iron pot. They then carried the steaming pot around to each guest.
"They came to me first, as the senior American," Sharp recalled. "I reached in and took a chunk of something that looked like liver. As the doctor on the trip with us watched me eat this, he said, 'I think it's part of the upper viaduct.' He was doing an anatomical analysis on all the parts, but I'm still not sure what I ate."
Becoming an FAO takes time and dedication, Beto, Reed and Sharp all agreed, and they have no regrets.
"There are tradeoffs you make," Sharp said. "I'm probably not going to become a brigade commander. I may have less of a chance of being a general officer. But I think I can make a real impact for my country by being an FAO. I have zero regrets. It's been a wonderful experience for me."