It's not uncommon for Americans going on vacation abroad to research the country they are visiting. After all, as guests, they want to be respectful of others' cultures, and mindful of their customs and courtesies.

It's no different for U.S. military personnel serving in the Middle East.

A few years ago, the intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., incorporated a cultural awareness package into its curriculum to teach Soldiers about geography, history and religion, as well as terrorism and counter-terrorism measures.

Today, Soldiers are getting some of the same training at Fort Jackson, thanks to a cultural awareness training team formed here in March.

"We teach cultural awareness throughout the post," said Maj. Chris A. Woody, Victory Support Battalion executive officer and 171st Infantry Brigade 09L program manager. "The function of the brigade cultural awareness team is to go out and put realism in the training. We do role playing, for instance; Iraqi policemen, Iraqi soldiers, the sheikh -- whatever the scenario dictates."

The team consists of two Soldiers, both of Middle Eastern descent, with a third instructor to come on board soon. Woody said the information taught is taken from classes formed by U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command personnel at Fort Huachuca, the proponent for Army cultural awareness.

"The beauty of this is (our instructors) are native in heritage," Woody said. "They've been through Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training and been to combat, so they know the life of a Soldier, and they know the (Middle Eastern) culture. They can bring all of this together and make a better picture for a guy like me who doesn't understand."

Woody said after he came "out of command" of an 09L AIT unit, the idea arose to get cadre together to provide this training that he had previously received so many phone calls about but was unable to provide. He feels this will be an invaluable tool for Soldiers.
"These Soldiers come through basic training and culturally, they have differences," he said. "So, we need to touch as many Soldiers with this as we can."

Sgt. Mehdi (last name withheld), 171st Infantry Brigade cultural awareness adviser, agrees. He said much of what new Soldiers have heard about the Middle Eastern culture may be inaccurate.

"For our Soldiers to go over there -- it's a totally different culture for them," he said. "Some of them are young and may have never been out of their city or state, so what we try to do is explain to them the truth about the culture so it's easier for them to deal with the people."

Little things can sometimes mean a lot, Mehdi said, so he and his team try to convey things such as a general understanding of Islam, the Arabic language, and the fact that certain acts or gestures acceptable here may be insulting there.

"For instance, the hand gesture for 'okay' or 'good job' here is fine," he said. "But over there it means 'I'll get you later.'"

Woody stressed the importance of building a relationship with Iraqi citizens from the start.

"You don't meet a sheikh and tell him, 'hey, I'm going to raid your village and kick all your doors down,'" he said. "You don't make everybody in that community your enemy. Win the hearts and minds and build a relationship so when they get information, they'll give us information. And if our Soldiers understand the nuances and such, it puts us that much further ahead of the game."

Woody said besides giving Soldiers the ability to better understand the culture there, he hopes to build support with the Middle Eastern community here.

"Any kinds of relationships we can build will be better for Fort Jackson and the Army as a whole," he said.