By Spc. JP Lawrence, New York Army National Guard August 5, 2011
CAMP GROWL, Australia, Aug. 8, 2011 -- Maryland Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Eric Zubkus and Australian Defence Force Pvt. James Adams can’t be seen as they burrow under a framework of earth, grass and branches and scan the bush.
But they can sure be heard.
The Australian and the American are sharing a laugh with other Soldiers from the 1st Battalion 158th Cavalry Squadron (Long Range Surveillance) as they get ready to play their part in Exercise Talisman Sabre, a joint Australian/American exercise that ran from July 11 to July 29 here.
The exercise brought together 22,000 troops from different branches of the U.S. and Australian military in a combined training environment, and brought Zubkus and his Soldiers to the Shoalwater Bay Training Area near the northeast coast of Australia. It also brought Adams, and Australian Pvt. Neal Cullinan, both scouts in the Australian Defence Force’s Pilbarra Regiment, into Zubkus’ squad.
Both the ADF scouts and the LRS team are reconnaissance troops, trained in the art of infiltrating hostile territory in small groups with a backload of gear, staying hidden behind enemy lines for as long as the mission demands, and then bringing back what they saw to their higher headquarters.
For both parties, then, it was no surprise when the Australians were able to step seamlessly into training administered by the Americans.
Even more impressive, Zubkus said, was the ease in which the brash, enthusiastic Adams and the soft-spoken Cullinan meshed with his unit.
“It’s great for camaraderie, for espirit de corps, have a couple of guys from completely the other side of the world, two very different guys, come in,” explained Zubkus. “Within five minutes of being attached to my team, they fit right in as if they were part of my unit their whole careers.”
That everyone speaks English -- or a least some form of it -- certainly goes a long way in bridging the cultural gap. To Zubkus’s Soldiers, the two Aussies are living, breathing Rosetta Stones: dictionaries to consult whenever they want to know how to say some word or another in an Australian accent, mate.
Additionally, both Aussie soldiers said they soon found themselves as the authorities on anything Aussie: Paul Hogan, Vegemite and Australia’s poisonous snakes, poisonous spiders, and poisonous platypuses.
“It’s all in good fun,” Adams said, admitting at times he exaggerates the dangers of Australian wildlife. “It’s too bad they’ve caught on.”
What unites the two groups more than anything, however, may simply be the culture of being a modern warrior.
“It’s pretty easy for us to intermingle,” Adams says, “because we’re taught the same way, and we’re basically looking for the same things: covering your buddy and staying alive.”
For instance, during one training exercise, ten small military items were hidden in a patch of forest to test the Soldiers’ surveillance skills. With the aid of their scopes and binoculars, Soldiers were supposed to locate all ten and make a rough map of their location.
It’s a familiar drill for the Aussies, and Adams found almost all the hidden items.
“I think that’s the good thing about doing these exercises; it confirms that if we go to war together, our armies can work pretty seamlessly,” Adams says.
There is one small difference, however.
Since Adams’ Pilberra Regiment, a non-deployable defense-oriented reserve team, spends more time dealing with smugglers than Zubkus’s more infantry-oriented team, Adams was able to share at the end of the event how his unit places items higher up in the treetops, to encourage them to survey all heights and angles.
“That’s where smugglers hide their caches,” Adams explained.
Not every lesson is applicable between units, Zubkus said.
But discussing these differences often leads both groups to examine why they follow their practices in the first place.
Paradoxically, the differences in how they are taught bring the two groups together as they talk shop and swap tactics.
“A certain team leader who works with the Aussies might find something great about something they do and implement it in their team,” Zubkus said, “and then guys, when they switch back and forth between teams, they can bring that cross training to another team.”
In turn, Adams and Cullinan said they enjoy being able to work with the well-traveled LRS soldiers.
“It’s always better to get information from experienced people who have tried and tested these techniques,” Cullinan said.
“It gives you that confidence and competence that comes from real life situational awareness, rather than being trained and not having the feel of being in that situation, that mindset that ‘yes, you can do this.’”
While Zubkus and Adams checked out their hide site, similar exercises were being held at six training areas in central and northern Queensland, the Northern Territory, and in the Coral, Timor and Arafura Seas.
But in this one small hole in the ground, interoperability had another name: kinship.
“It’s comfortable in here,” says Zubkus, glancing around the hide-site.
“Yeah,” Adams responds, “it’s a real love nest.”
Outside their brothers-in-arms erupted in raucous laughter.