FAIRBANKS - Patrolling an Iraqi village where the residents were wary of U.S. troops, 1st Lt. Jeremiah Ellis approached a group of villagers and, with a few words of Arabic and the help of a translator, started a conversation.
The villagers were impressed with the Stryker Brigade member's Arabic and even more so with his penmanship of the language, which values elaborate and elegant script. He wrote "May your hand be blessed" on the hand of one of the villagers.
"I told them I wanted them to be blessed and have a hand in taking control of their Iraq," Ellis said.
Ellis is practicing walking a fine line in Iraq's culturally complex battlefield. He has a military objective to stabilize the country, but must also bridge a cultural gap so that his peace efforts don't offend his hosts.
The U.S. military has made cultural training for troops nearly as important as firearms and battlefield training. Most military personnel consider the Joint Forces Training Center at Fort Polk in central Louisiana the premier training facility for troops preparing to deploy to Iraq.
Ellis, along with the rest of the 3,800-member 172 Stryker Brigade Combat Team from forts Wainwright and Richardson, spent the month of May at JRTC in preparation for deployment this fall.
The trip to JRTC allowed troops to train in live-fire and force-on-force exercises over a month-long period. Troops spent their last week at JRTC in a microcosm of Iraq that encompasses 18 mock villages spread over several thousand acres, an elaborate charade that includes more than 1,400 role players acting as Iraqi citizens, leaders, insurgents, and media from around the world.
Advanced pyrotechnics were used to mimic roadside explosions, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. All role players and soldiers wear special equipment that detects laser beams from weapons that render a person "injured" or "killed in action."
Ellis can talk at length about his state-of-the-art Stryker vehicle and how it commands a presence in action. He can detail the mission he and his fellow soldiers are expected to carry out when the 172 Stryker Brigade deploys to Iraq this fall. And as platoon leader for Company A, 1st Battalion, 71st Infantry, he can speak eloquently about the U.S. troops' firepower and military superiority.
But his eyes light up when he talks about the challenge of bridging cultural differences.
"I'm going to go so far as to say ... it is absolutely necessary that U.S. forces be sensitive to the culture," Ellis said.
The training at JRTC is so realistic that troops act and talk as if they are already in Iraq.
Ellis' unit was set up at Fort Operating Base Warrior, where the captain was trying to establish friendly relations in the village of Al Dukar. The captain had found the village mayor, a role-player who was born in Iraq and hired by the military for the training center, to be lukewarm toward the troops, although not aligned with insurgents.
So the captain pulled out his ace: the friendly and talkative Ellis.
Ellis began daily deliveries of water and talked with the mayor about the village's needs, which were headed by a new water well and tower. Ellis told the mayor he would bring a unit of engineers to the village to help tear down the damaged tower and erect a new one. Villagers would assist with the project and use leftover materials to repair their mosque. The U.S. military would not tout its involvement with the project.
"We want the credit to fall on the Iraqi people," Ellis said. "We want the people to have ownership."
But the engineers, who are in high demand in Iraq, were also run ragged at JRTC. They did not show up at the appointed time.
Suddenly, all plans were sidetracked when a mortar exploded just outside the gates of the base. Soldiers jumped into action and radios crackled as the base tried to determine the source of the attack. For about 20 minutes, troops crept around the perimeter until word came that no one was spotted in the area. Ellis received word that two mortars also had exploded near Al Dukar, less than a mile from the base.
Without waiting for the engineers, Ellis decided go to the village with a medic to see if there were any injuries.
As Ellis approached, he removed his helmet as a sign of respect. The mayor reached out to shake hands with Ellis. But the warm welcome ended there.
With Ellis' translator, Abraham, bridging the language barrier, Ellis explained that he had come with a medic to help any villagers injured by the mortar attacks. The mayor appreciated the gesture and assured him no one was injured. However, the mayor noted that Ellis was late for their appointment and he had not brought any engineers, as promised.
A heated exchange ensued and Ellis explained that he was not at fault for the engineers' tardiness.
"If it is something I can control, I will be here," Ellis said.
"It's really not OK," the mayor said through the translator. "I am very busy. You say 2 o'clock, I expect to see you here at 2 o'clock."
Ellis attempted to placate the mayor for several minutes before losing his patience and lobbing his own verbal defense in two simple but searing words in the Iraqi culture.
"I'm insulted," Ellis said.
The role-playing mayor acted slightly stunned before shifting his weight and raising his voice in another diatribe. Ellis' men stiffened, wondering if their lieutenant had pushed the mayor too far.
But Ellis showed the savvy of a diplomat by presenting the mayor with money for the village.
When the mayor realized it was Ellis' personal money and more was to come from coalition forces, he softened. He and Ellis exchanged pleasantries as Ellis and his men walked away after a commitment to return the next day with the daily delivery of water and news of the engineers.
Afterward, Ellis explained that he wanted to help the villagers and gain their respect but not at the expense of his own pride or security. Abraham, the interpreter who was born and raised in Iraq and frequently gave cultural pointers to Ellis, told him the mayor needed to be wooed with actions, not promises.
"They're very concerned with the here and the now," Ellis said, nodding.
A day after Ellis' exchange in Al Dukar, troops at Operating Forward Base Anvil were tense with anticipation. Capt. Michael Spinello was planning a search mission in the nearby village of Wadi Al Tarif.
Company C's objective was to secure the village and reduce insurgent activity enough to turn control over to Iraqi forces. Spinello explained that the villagers had an alliance with coalition forces but were being threatened by insurgents hunkered down in Wadi Al Tarif.
"They feel paralyzed," he said. "(The mayor's) heart is in the right place and he has all the right intentions for his village."
By late afternoon, the convoy of Stryker vehicles began heading out of the base. Even though it was only a practice run, Spinello followed guidelines for releasing information: no exact number of vehicles or soldiers used in the exercise will be released, nor will any numbers of casualties or deaths.
After a nearly two-hour ride, Spinello's Stryker came to a halt outside the village. While the steel cocoon of the vehicle allows no window on the world, the muffled sounds of gunshots could be heard. Spinello, a two-time veteran of JRTC training, waited for a series of code words to let him know other units had completed specific tasks to secure the village.
Outside, Strykers and Humvees dotted the outskirts of the village and a couple of Black Hawk helicopters passed overhead. Anti-coalition propaganda littered the walls of buildings, including one sign in English that read, "Cap. Spinello is a liar."
U.S. troops hovered behind buildings before bee-lining for the next building, ducking inside each to search for insurgents and weapons caches.
Someone called for a medic, but none was nearby.
Spc. Jason Jones called out that he is an emergency medical technician and moved forward to assess the injuries of a downed Iraqi policeman. The man was declared dead. For a brief moment, the exercise stopped as a usually quiet and barely visible JRTC controller/observer stepped forward to lead the role-player out of the "game."
Reports began trickling in on Staff Sgt. Craig Harmon's radio. Several U.S. soldiers have been injured or killed. He is leading a unit of a half-dozen men, who are still on the ground and not in the safety of a vehicle.
The next several hours continued in cat-and-mouse fashion. Harmon directed Iraqi National Guard soldiers and his men into the trees. About 80 yards in, the troops came under fire from insurgents positioned across a small clearing. Harmon and several of his men took cover in a wide ditch. An Iraqi National Guardsman was hit, his detection gear setting off a high-pitched whine.
After training wrapped up, Spinello, his company and the entire 172nd were treated to showers, air conditioning and a plane trip home to Fairbanks or Anchorage. Their Stryker vehicles and equipment are en route to Beaumont, Texas, where they will be shipped to Kuwait to await the brigade's arrival in August. There, troops will begin their complex mission in the real Iraq, a task Spinello said his soldiers are up to.
"We're asking more of our soldiers today than I think we've ever asked and there's more at stake," he said. "I couldn't be more proud of our guys. They're doing a superb job. And it's hard."