U.S. Troops Train in Germany with Iraqi Extras Arabic speakers hired to work at a United States base in Germany were supposed to make the training environment there more realistic. But many of the troops being trained in mock villages populated by Arabic speakers are headed for Afghanistan, not Iraq.
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U.S. Troops Train in Germany with Iraqi Extras

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U.S. Troops Train in Germany with Iraqi Extras

U.S. Troops Train in Germany with Iraqi Extras

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade has wrapped up training before deploying to Afghanistan for a year. The troops spent last week in the hills of Bavaria, fighting mock insurgents and helping mock villagers.

NPR's Emily Harris reports on the U.S. military's effort at cross-cultural training.

EMILY HARRIS: Germany's bucolic southern state of Bavaria is in many ways worlds away from the war-torn Islamic Republic Of Afghanistan. But there is a bite to the early spring air here. Dust billows off the back roads under Humvee wheels and five-ton trucks. And the sun burns intensely bright.

Last week, the only such military training center for U.S. troops in Europe became pretend-Afghanistan for about 5,000 troops.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

HARRIS: The smoke and sound of big Howitzer guns were real, but the shells were not.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

HARRIS: Dozens of green Army tents were set up inside a chain-linked fence, mimicking the feel of a base in Afghanistan. The gate here was guarded around the clock, on this night by Sergeant J.A. Holden(ph).

Sgt. J.A. HOLDEN (Army Cook): It's very realistic. We're getting more rounds, like, all day. But right now, it's been pretty much relaxed. But I know something's going to happen.

HARRIS: Holden is an Army cook. But here, like he may in Afghanistan, he stands guard and travels to re-supply the base. Here those missions take him past groups of buildings representing Afghan settlements.

Mr. HOLDEN: Like I said, I've never been deployed before, but I felt like I was there. Just the people, they were speaking the language, the dress, the town, the way everything was, music - religion, they were practicing their religious things.

HARRIS: For years, Germans stood in for villagers here. But following the practice at similar bases in the U.S., Arabic speakers were hired for this most recent three-week exercise - 500 hundred of them - at a cost of around $5 million.

Unidentified Man #1: Hi, guys.

HARRIS: Among a handful of (unintelligible) a U.S. soldier, approaches three men dressed in long gowns with cloths wrapped around their heads. He asked them about what appears to be a threatening letter left the local teashop aimed at people who might tolerate the U.S. presence.

Unidentified Man #1: Do you know where it came from?

Unidentified Man #2: No idea.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: Some details are off. Stuffed pillows shaped like sheep replace wandering domestic animals. Almost all the hired villagers speak Arabic, not Dari or other Afghan languages, because the unit was initially due to deploy to Iraq. What does feel real is the difficulty of communicating through translators not fluent in English, and that the soldiers are practicing what they intend to do.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: There may be foreigners coming (unintelligible) down...

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: ...from time to time.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: And although, I know all three of you guys are okay...

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: ...perhaps next time the Americans come to town, they will not know you...

HARRIS: He was trying to convince the villagers to let soldiers take their photographs, fingerprints and retina scans for a digital database. Sergeant First Class David Renehan is a trainer here. He says it's better for troops to work with people from the region.

Sergeant First Class DAVID RENEHAN (U.S. Military Trainer): If you had a German local national playing an Afghan, they'll come up and they'll, you know, put their hands to the heart and show respect after shaking hands what-not. But now with an actual Muslim here, the soldiers - I feel they're taking it a little bit more seriously, that oh, I'm actually dealing with someone from there. You know, from the Middle East or Arabic speaking.

HARRIS: After some negative reports in the German media, recruiters acknowledged that there was some reluctance among potential extras to work with the U.S. military. One Kurd from Kirkuk helping find Iraqis put a special note on a flyer - whatever you think of U.S. policy in Iraq, it said, don't forget that America freed Iraq from a dictatorship and tyranny.

One Iraqi said he came to the base to help U.S. soldiers get it right.

Unidentified Man #4: (Through translator) Saddam is gone and now it's worse, worse for ordinary people. When you go shopping, you have to kiss your whole family goodbye. Maybe you'll be back, maybe not. And I'm here because I've heard that Americans don't know how to react to Iraqi people. Maybe they misinterpret Iraqis. I'm here to help my people.

HARRIS: He was already hired when the switch came to Afghanistan. He wouldn't give his name out of fear family members in Baghdad could be hurt because of his participation. The training center's executive officer, Reggie Bourgeoius, says hiring Arabic speakers raised new concerns.

Mr. REGGIE BOURGEOIUS (Cross-Cultural Training Executive Officer): Of course there were issues. But I must say most of the issues came - in the hiring process - after the media attention. There was some fear at that point that perhaps this was not a good thing to do if I was considering doing it. Having said that, we had no problems filling 500 positions.

HARRIS: He's not sure if they'll repeat the experiment here though. It's harder and takes longer than working with German speakers.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Hohenfeld, Germany.

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