DARIEN, Ill. - Each year, the Army sends 20 reserve officers and Soldiers to Germany, Denmark and the United Kingdom for the Military Reserve Exchange Program (MREP).
Last year, when Capt. Nicholas Niedenthal signed up, Germany was his third choice of the three, but he still got the experience of a lifetime.
"We went to the Eagle's Nest together ... And there's a photo of (American Soldiers) standing next to the fireplace where we're right there, and we're having lunch ... as an American and German officers, sitting across the table from each other drinking coffee where Hitler had his war leaders show up, and his SS compound was right there," said Niedenthal, who is an Army Reserve officer who most recently served as the 374th Engineer Company (Sapper) commander, headquartered in Concord, California.
The Eagle's Nest is a chalet-style retreat used by Adolf Hitler, built on a mountain peak in southern Germany. The fireplace that Niedenthal mentioned was a gift from Benito Mussolini, made of expensive Carrara marble, later damaged by Allied soldiers who chipped off pieces as souvenirs.
Niedenthal's grandfather fought in the Navy during World War II. One of the German colonels who in-processed him had a father who fought in the tank division. Seventy years ago, these two would have been enemies. Now, they were allies, sharing stories and experiences to improve international relations.
Niedenthal spent approximately two weeks in Germany as part of the exchange program. During his in-process, he learned about their military, history, and broke up into discussion groups to share ideas on how to improve military structures and retention.
"One thing I found interesting is the size of the German military. It's actually very small compared to the U.S. military. The entire German defense is smaller than the U.S. Army Reserve," said Niedenthal.
MERP began as the Reserve Officer Foreign Exchange Program (ROFEP) in 1985 with a signed agreement between Germany and the U.S. It expanded to include the U.K. in 1989, then changed to MREP in 2012 when Denmark was added. The Army Reserve had a total of 5 officers participating in the U.K. and Germany until 2010 when it started expanding to 27 officers and enlisted Soldiers in 2014. The program has more than 150 annual participants, including those from the National Guard.
On Feb. 10, the Department of Defense signed a memorandum of understanding with the Estonian Ministry of Defense to add them as partners. The next two countries being considered are Australia and Spain.
"Talking with other officers from other countries is very beneficial for your development because you learn different ways of thinking. Different ideas," he said.
The exchange program is designed to give officers like Niedenthal a broadening experience and professional development. In return, reserve Soldiers are encouraged to share their own knowledge about the Army Reserve or National Guard to bolster military allies.
"When it comes down to it, we need each other. The global war on terror (continues). We're still fighting on different fronts, and even on the engineer side of the house, we're tasked not just with fighting ... wars, but also disaster relief. Engineering projects and construction projects," he said.
Niedenthal is Level 2 certified in the Defense Support of Civil Authorities, and part of the training discussed the need to globalize efforts with international allies. This exchange program helps pave those relationships before the time comes for working together.
Even though Niedenthal is an engineer officer, he was partnered with the German 3rd Military Police Battalion for the visit because of his civilian police background. He visited Berlin, Munich, the German Ministry of Defense, went to pistol and rifle ranges, attended a mountain warfare training center, a pathology
department and toured their engineer regiment schoolhouse.
"It was a blast," he said about the obstacle course he went through at the mountain training center. "Some things were a little scary because I never learned these techniques, you know, and certain poles were like 70 feet tall, but they were trained how to do that since they were youngsters. It was a really cool experience."
His worst experience was with the pathology department. Niedenthal has a forensic science degree, so they brought to the Munich morgue for a visit.
"I thought I'd get a class, or something like that," he recalled. "There were bodies everywhere, and they were doing an autopsy for an individual who had an overdose, so his body was bloated pretty bad ... I was perplexed with this because I was in (my Army Combat Uniform) ... and it was like, 'Oh the American captain is here.' I had to act like a tough guy while they were chopping bodies up. It just wasn't my thing. 'Okay, I've had enough now'... I lasted for about 15 minutes."
Even though Niedenthal's last name is German, he comes of Polish descent. During one trip, he visited the Polish Resistance Museum.
"I was stayed there for a couple of hours, reading about my heritage. I kind of reconnected with myself, in the sense ... This is where I come from. The Polish people are very proud people, so it was cool to see that first hand," he said.
Throughout the exchange visit, Niedenthal learned some of the differences between the U.S. and German militaries. For example, because Germany is so much smaller than the U.S. geographically, most officers commute hours to their military stations and return home on the weekend, rather than move the whole family closer for each assignment. U.S. Soldiers train more frequently, even U.S Army Reserve ones, and are typically better equipped.
"(We) might gripe about equipment, but in the German Army, they don't get issued equipment unless they deploy. So for training purposes, they all buy their own stuff, and then it's a lot of recycled gear," he said.
The German reserve forces are also structured differently. Instead of having a monthly commitment to report, German reservists are put on months-long orders to fill temporary needs. Culturally, however, he realized Germans are more diverse. German officers are required to be at least bilingual, and some
know as many as three or four languages.
"The thing that I found most humbling in a sense, and shocking, was that majority of Germans speak fluent English and it's something that they pride themselves in as far as education,"
Despite these difference, Niedenthal was also impressed by their similarities. Weapon systems and equipment mechanics might be different, but most of their tactics are the same.
"To me a Soldier is a Soldier, is a Soldier ... There's no difference between a German Soldier and an American Soldier. We all fight for the same reasons. It's just a different uniform, different flag ... Their reserve officers are kind of like ours. We all come from different walks of life. We joined the Army because it's fun, and we have this sense of pride and duty. But I saw a lot more similarities than differences than I would have expected to see."
After all, who wouldn't enjoy a cup of coffee next to a marble fireplace on top of a German mountain range?