Part 2 of a SeriesOn the continent of Atlantica, between Europe and America, lies the rural village of Pine Branch, in the northern part of the Republic of Pineland. The villagers were in the middle of "a little civil war" and the U. S. Army had arrived to stabilize the region.Pastor Bowen Scott was on hand to mediate and counsel. Scott had settled in Pine Branch from Franklin, Tennessee, was set apart from the locals by his southern accent and black cowboy hat. But that's not the least of his differences. He's also been a terrorist and a mullah."He" is actually Edward Hudson, the man who pretends to be Pastor Scott.Hudson is a civilian role player, hired by the Valbin Corporation, to provide realistic training for the Psychological Operations students taking the class offered by the 80th Training Command several times a year. Hudson is actually from the town of Lockwood, and Pine Branch is in a Fort Hunter Liggett training area.At least a dozen other role players, most from the local area, took on personas of villagers in order to challenge the Soldiers with situations they may encounter on real missions."I've been out here 3-1/2 years doing this," said Hudson. He said the Soldiers sometimes expect them to suddenly come out of character, which they don't do until the exercise ends. "That's the attempt from our side to make it real," said Hudson. "This group showed growth from my point of view. Maybe they're unsure at first. Then they just jump right in. Next thing you know they're being respectful of the rules, traditions, local customs, and that helps in the entire development of the program."John Spangler, who wore a snappy beret and suit and tie, played the role of village mayor. He recently moved to Paso Robles from Illinois, and when he found out about the program he signed on."We're told essentially our character," he said of the scenario. "We're given a rough idea of what the whole thing is about, and as we go along we're given clues as to what is likely to happen. Pretty much the rest of it we make up and adapt to as we go along."His real-life career as both a Lutheran pastor and a college professor was a natural fit with his role as peacekeeper and unifier in his "village.""Teachers, if they're going to be interesting and not boring, have to be something of actors and engagers," said Spangler. "You get a lot of insight in how to treat people and how to deal with conflicting political and cultural matters."He has done mission work in Thailand and India, speaks several languages, and also has a keen interest in world history. "That enabled me to do my job as mayor of this town better than I thought it would," he said.Spangler said Soldiers were generally awkward when the scenario started. "Some of them looked like deer in the headlights," he said with a laugh. "I have to admit, I and some of the others kind of enjoyed putting them on the spot, making them think on their feet and react to circumstances they'd never run into before. To see them adapt to that was gratifying and a lot of fun."For his role as mayor he had to learn everyone's real and stage names, and their characters' occupations, political and social stances. "I was asked about population, where the hospital was, who's in charge of this, that and the other. Who could they talk and who should they avoid. It was an ongoing process. I took a lot of notes."He said the Soldiers seemed very pleased with what they learned during the exercise, and the role players brought or created many of their own props and dealt with bouts of cold, rainy squalls.
"This was a wonderful experience, an overall great success," said Spangler. "Our people (role players) are impressively creative and adaptive."Jeanne Paynter of Lockwood is a medically retired veteran due to injuries she received in Afghanistan. She feels being a role player is a way she can still serve her country. "This is a way I can help the students learn their job and be able to cope with potentially explosive situations or difficult people."Her role as store owner and bartender put her in a unique information-gathering position. "It's where everybody gathers, everybody gossips, everybody talks. The good guys and the bad guys. In Lockwood, it's either the Lockwood Store or the Post Office.""And at the potlucks," chimed in Rebecca Riel, who played a Red Cross worker trying to help the farmers plant crops other than poppies and marijuana."One of the things I like is the amazing creativity you can put into this," said Riel. "We are challenging the students, and we know the more we get them to think, the more lives we're going to be able to save -- their own and the people around them."When asked if the role players had specific training, Riel said, "We're all naturally mischievous. We all learn from each other."Ricky Bittle of Bryson-Hesperia, who played a sharecropper, laughed in agreement. "We naturally like to talk," he said.During the meet-and-greet, a sergeant from Houston, Texas told the role players, "I'm very good at doing the infantry stuff, but not so much the face-to-face aspect."Riel told him, "As long as people can see and feel your intent they will be able to respond. If you are open, they have a feeling they can trust you, that you are trying to become part of the community, little tiny things go a long way. It's an entirely different mindset to create that rapport with people, and it does have a lot of vulnerability going with it.""You guys are phenomenal actors," said the sergeant, who initially had difficulty interacting with the villagers. "From day one I was feeling pretty bad about myself."Another role player told a Soldier, "Some of these crews, they made it hard for me to trust them, because they didn't build rapport, and one of them accused me of growing weed."The culminating event was a town hall, moderated by the mayor, with the Soldiers summarizing their achievements and taking heat for the problems, including a perceived arrogance."This town hall meeting is for the young PSYOP students to exercise command presence, to dispel rumors, and to be able to speak in a public setting and rally the townspeople to take care of themselves," said Staff Sgt. Brandon Skolnick, PSYOP instructor from Fort Bragg.Whether the real life encounter is with a village elder, a mullah, or a warlord, what these Soldiers learned from the mayor, pastor, and farmers of Pine Branch should prepare them for the intricacies of navigating cultural and political differences in order to bring about peace.#Next: Part 3 - PSYOP Soldiers in the Field -- Lessons Learned