Laughter, sharing expertise and comraderie: all part of training with the German forces
August 28, 2009
WIESBADEN, Germany - After seven days in the field with a squad of German soldiers, I learned there are things about the military that bridge countries and cultures.
I had conducted a pre-deployment exercise to train on weapons and tactics at the Lager Aulenbach Baumholder training area with German soldiers from the Zentrum Operative Information.
I'm sleeping on what'
At the training area I was met by a noncommissioned officer who issued me some linen and a G36 rifle - a German 5.56mm assault rifle. On the way to the training site, the roads turned from pavement to brick and from brick to gravel.
We arrived at a clearing and what looked like an old horse stable. It turned out I would be sleeping in that structure. The German soldier who drove me spoke only a few words of English, but it was clear from the way he pointed and waved that he wanted me to grab my gear and follow him.
After setting down my gear, we tore trash bags off of a roll and started filling them with hay.
Oberfeldwebel (Staff Sgt.) Christian Lill, a broadcaster with Zentrum Operative Information Dezernat Betreuungsradio, told me this would be my bed for the next two nights.
I was skeptical. But before I could say anything, Lill looked at me, smiled and said "this is very comfortable sleep. You will see."
I looked at the neatly arranged plastic-covered pillows of hay before falling on to them like I would on to a mattress. Hay exploded into the air. I lay there while my squad laughed at me. Sure enough the makeshift bed was more comfortable than my own bed.
By my second beer ...
The wet rainy day quickly went by as we trained on various patrol tactics. By midnight my squad members and I finished the shift, and we were allowed to sleep.
At 4:30 a.m. we were awakened by loud music local to Afghanistan. Day two was a lot of the same training with the addition of pulling myself across a metal wire and tying knots.
By the end of the day most of my squad members were tired, bruised and ready to go to bed. The leadership had other plans. The smell of burning wood and marinated chicken filled the air as soldiers set up disc-jockey equipment.
I sat at a table tearing a piece of chicken apart when Oberfeldwebel (Staff Sgt.) Dominic Kilger, a broadcaster with Zentrum Operative Information Dezernat Betreuungsradio, asked me if I wanted a beer. I stopped what I was doing and looked at him unsure if he was serious.
The thought of drinking alcohol during a training event seemed so alien to me. I told him "No I don't think that is such a good idea."
"Why don't you want to drink with me'" Kilger asked furling his eyebrows. I didn't want to upset my new comrades so I grabbed the Weisbier and took a sip. By the second beer I found myself exchanging patches with the soldiers. Three hours later I was in a complete German uniform.
Grenades get laughs
Two days later back at the base I was introduced to my new team members - five privates who had just graduated from basic training. They all seemed slightly intimidated by the whole situation. Every attempt at getting any kind of candid answer or a smile seemed pointless.
Sometime in the late morning, we pulled up in a bus to lush rolling hills where we would throw practice grenades. The new privates all went first, and when it was time for me to go, I was kind of nervous. I can't throw things very well.
I tried my best, but sure enough when I attempted to throw a fake grenade left it went right. Later that day my soldiers stated they were kind of nervous about throwing real grenades, and I told them "just be scared when I throw them." They all broke out in laughter.
Shoot like a German
When it came time to fire the G36, I was excited. I had never fired one before. But after a few ranges, I was pretty comfortable with the German rifle. I even convinced the NCO to let me fire the German machine gun, the MG3.
Without too much instruction I was able to figure out the weapon. Lill asked me if I was ready, and I said "yeah." He pointed to the top of a five-ton truck and told me to get in.
I climbed to the top and secured myself, and the truck took off on the bumpy dirt road. When our team leader gave me the go ahead to let some rounds off, I shot at the targets in three- to five-round bursts until I was out of ammo.
We finished the scenario, and Lill told me he was very impressed. "You shoot like a German," he said with a smirk.
"I shoot like an American," I replied in a sarcastic tone.
We both laughed.
Laughter was the same
During the seven-day training event, I really bonded with my group.
By the end, the German soldiers said everything in English even to each other. I started to feel like one of them. Those moments of feeling like the strange foreign guy had passed.
I think it's rare to meet a team that clicks so well especially one that has cultural differences to overcome. But what it really came down to is that even though the jokes might have been different, we all laughed the same way.