ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For decades, the U.S. Army has provided military advisers to work with allies around the world. That need has grown lately. So now the Army is creating units with thousands of soldiers whose training and mission is specifically to serve as advisers. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports from Fort Polk, La. where the first of the new adviser brigades trained for a spring deployment to Afghanistan.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The Army is weaponizing chitchat and on a massive scale.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
PRICE: It's night and Major Jason Moncuse is sitting at a table in a makeshift headquarters with an African actor playing the role of a commander from his nation's army.
MAJOR JASON MONCUSE: Oh, you submitted a tourist visa. Is that what that is?
PRICE: Moncuse and his team are part of the first of the Army's new brigades of military advisers. They share an interest in working with troops from other cultures.
MONCUSE: You get to learn what they're doing. You get to interact with your counterparts on a daily basis, and you can actually see changes.
PRICE: The new advisory unit is called the First Security Force Assistance Brigade or SFAB. It's only a few months old. The Army built it mainly with volunteers, most of them combat veterans and many with past experience as advisers. They were essentially handpicked. Colonel Scott Jackson commands the new unit.
COLONEL SCOTT JACKSON: Personality characteristics of empathy and flexibility and patience - that's kind of built into this organization by the age of the people we hire largely.
PRICE: Major Moncuse, for example, is a company commander. That's usually a job for captains, one rank lower. In the SFAB, many roles are performed by someone with a rank higher than normal or with enough experience to be promoted. And there are no junior enlisted soldiers, only sergeants and above. Jackson says that's by design.
JACKSON: I'm five years older than the average brigade commander 'cause I've already done it. Battalion commanders are all at least three years older than the average battalion commander. The NCOs are all older than the average NCO. So with that comes better judgment, better maturity, more patience, then we go from there.
PRICE: And they're looking for something else that's just as crucial.
JACKSON: We look for people who are comfortable with being uncomfortable. And you've got to be willing to work within a culture that's not your own.
PRICE: Jackson's brigade is based at Fort Benning, Ga. and has more than 500 soldiers. A second brigade is forming at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and four more are planned. They're getting special foreign language training and learning to work with foreign weapons. Standard infantry units perform most of this role now, but the Pentagon wants to rely less on that.
It takes them out of their normal cycle of training, deploying and rebuilding for the next mission and also puts units and soldiers into roles they might not want or be suited for.
JACKSON: Can I borrow you for a second?
PRICE: Jackson reaches for my hand and holds it fondly as we talk and squeezes.
JACKSON: I'll walk up to - if somebody who wants to come to the organization, I'll just grab their hand and I'll start talking to them. If a soldier, like, can't deal with that, that's a vital part of Middle Eastern culture. And that means he's your friend.
PRICE: When they were planning the new SFABs, Army leaders consulted with former advisers all the way back to the Vietnam era and were told it was crucial to pick not just soldiers who were expert at their jobs but who also were interested in working with those from another culture.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Is there a way to get a medevac?
PRICE: The exercises here at Fort Polk start with relationship building and move on to planning a mission together, as Moncuse was doing with the African role-player. Then the teams move out.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).
PRICE: The African soldiers with their American advisers enter a village populated by more role-players. There's a tiny market and even live goats.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Very good, how are you?
PRICE: The freshly minted advisers like Major Moncuse and others training here are hoping that forming cross-cultural relationships will help things go right more often in Afghanistan.
MONCUSE: You see that rapport building, you see them doing things that they weren't doing before and it's a satisfying experience.
PRICE: And the advisers are hoping that rapport will also help when things don't go well.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOTS)
PRICE: In this exercise, they get caught up in an ambush. It underlines why they've also been brushing up on their combat skills - because even if they are empathetic and culturally sensitive, the advisers are still soldiers. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Fort Polk, La.
SHAPIRO: We want to take a moment now to welcome somebody who listeners have come to know well over the previous months and years as a frequent guest host of this program. Now a permanent member of the hosting team, Ailsa Chang.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
SHAPIRO: It's so good to have you here in the studio.
CHANG: ...Thank you. I am so happy and proud to be here. I also can't quite believe it. I came to NPR 10 years ago as a Kroc Fellow. That's a one-year fellowship here at NPR. I remember during orientation staring at the show being produced, and now I can't believe I'm on the other side of the glass.
SHAPIRO: Well, we are thrilled to have you as part of the team and look forward to hearing lots more from you here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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