JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. (Army News Service, May 1, 2014) -- Building strong bonds with soldiers from other countries is a "huge combat multiplier for us," Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III told a gathering of top enlisted from armies around the world.

The soldiers were visiting Chandler's home here, April 29. Among them were a number of students from Eastern Europe, formerly Warsaw Pact nations and now NATO members. One student was from Ukraine.

The soldiers spent nearly all of their 10-month stay in the U.S. as part of the International Military Students Organization, training at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, or USASMA, on Fort Bliss, Texas.

USASMA's goal is to prepare the soldiers to someday lead their own enlisted and provide guidance to their commanders.

They were in the Washington, D.C., area as part of their Field Studies Program, designed to give them first-hand experience about American culture and how the U.S. government works.

"I hope that if we do have to fight or to just work and train together, that you have built relationships with our sergeants major," he told them. "Each of you has something special about your army that we as an American Army can learn from, and if we do that and share our experiences, we'll all be better off as armies and as people."

This year, those students from Eastern Europe had a lot on their minds in addition to their own studies and relationship building -- events unfolding in Ukraine.

"Deploying U.S. Soldiers this week to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for military exercises shows America is committed to them and NATO is working through the challenges of bringing together consensus, but we are there for them and want to support them in the best way our country can," Chandler said.

"I know they appreciate that but I understand their concerns about the future," he added. "We would be concerned too as a nation if we were in the same place."


First Sgt. Jan Cmelik remembers the Cold War, and as a soldier from Slovakia, which borders Ukraine, he said he's concerned about the situation in his neighboring country.

Born in 1978, in what was then Czechoslovakia, he has no memories of war, but says that past wars have left a deep imprint on the psyche of his country, particularly the Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, following political liberalization reforms.

Going further back in time, he said he and his fellow countrymen will never forget the Munich Agreement between Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, which allowed Nazi Germany to annex portions of Czechoslovakia.

"So yes, we are worried about Ukraine," he said. "We're very sensitive to this issue." His wife and child are in Slovakia awaiting his return this summer.

Cmelik's army background is in special forces, and he fondly recalls training with the U.S. Green Berets in Slovakia.

The training at USASMA he sees as not only benefiting him, but also the Slovak army. One of the highlights was attending master resilience training, or MRT, sessions. He plans to try and implement MRT in his army.

"Too many (Slovak) soldiers came back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD," he said, adding that many are afraid to seek help because of the stigma of seeming weak.

"We have to work on this issue because it's a big problem. We need to take care of the health of our soldiers," he said, and MRT can do just that.

MRT in the U.S. Army offers strength-based, positive, psychology tools to Soldiers and family members to increase their ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges and bounce back from adversity. Other ready and resilient programs bolster this effort.

Command Sgt. Maj. Martin Holko is a fellow Slovak soldier. But unlike Cmelik, his chain of command does not include the army chief of staff. Instead, as a military policeman, he and fellow MPs report to the Ministry of Defense.

He admitted that it's a peculiar arrangement, but in time of war, the MPs would fight alongside the army doing tasks similar to what U.S. MPs do.

Like his comrade Cmelik, Holko casts a wary eye on Russia and Ukraine. If further trouble breaks out in the region, he anticipates refugees coming across the border into Slovakia. As an MP, his services would be particularly essential, he said.

The Slovak military and MPs have recently adopted the American Army NCO model, something not every country has done. But the transition has been quite recent, so the training at USASMA has benefited him nonetheless, he said.

Chandler explained that NCO professional development is "widely regarded as the best in the world."

U.S. Army officers give their NCOs a great deal of freedom to accomplish missions, he said. This frees up officers to do the "larger, more complex tasks."

The trust built between Army officers and NCOs "allows us to do that without even blinking an eye," he continued. "That is both unique and foreign to many who come through USASMA. As more and more foreign NCOs go through USASMA, they will learn more about the Army's NCO corps and will take that knowledge back with them and it will help them shape their own NCO corps."

Master Sgt. Aidas Kreivys from Lithuania admits feeling nervous about the tensions in his region, but feels confident that NATO and the U.S. will come to his country's assistance if and when they're needed.

This is his second trip to the U.S., the first being in 1997, when he participated in mountain warfare training with the Marines in California. His wife is also a Lithuanian soldier.

Sgt. Maj. Siim Vark is from nearby Estonia, a country with an active army that numbers only about 3,200 soldiers.

"NATO is very important for us," he said, adding that he's grateful for the training he received at USASMA and for the Americans now in his country participating in exercises.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Slawomir Nastarowicz, from Poland, said his country has had a history of being invaded by neighboring nations, including Russia.

"This is nothing new for us," he said, adding that he hopes the unrest will not spread.

Nastarowicz has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and, having partnered with the U.S. and other NATO countries, he said he feels much safer.

A few warrant officers like Nastarowicz are invited each year to USASMA, although most students are from the top two enlisted ranks.

Sgt. Maj. Kiklos Kovacs, of Hungary, said he's following the news in Ukraine closely. He's deployed three times to Afghanistan and does not relish ever having to fight on home soil. Hungary, like Czechoslovakia, was invaded by the Soviets, in 1956.

Chandler addressed Kovacs' concern and the concerns of others:

"I hope we never have to fight another war. I think all of us as Soldiers are the ones who do not want to fight the most because we know the sacrifice."

He added that the "bonds we build over this nearly year-long course between sergeants major of other countries is very important as we look to the future and the locations we may have to fight in, as well as helping other countries with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. If you've already got an established relationship with someone, you've already broken down some barriers to working together."

The USASMA class included many students from outside Eastern Europe, countries that included Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Brazil, Germany, Canada, Belize, Botswana, Jordan, Australia, Colombia, New Zealand and Italy.

Master Sgt. Hielke Simon Kootstra, from the Netherlands, said his is a small country but "we try to take a greater role in our responsibility in the world."

Kootstra has done his part, having served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. He too said USASMA was a valuable experience for him, and he hopes to take lessons learned back with him to the Dutch army.

Three soldiers from Afghanistan are also USASMA students, including Command Sgt. Maj. Mohibullah Hamdard, who presented Chandler with a dismaal or Afghan scarf, as a farewell gift.

Throughout his career, Chandler said he's made lasting relationships with peers from other countries, some of whom he met again while on deployments or training. He said these bonds are priceless and hopes the friendships continue between soldiers of all countries long after he's gone.

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