By Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord, 5th Mobile Public Affairs DetachmentJune 13, 2012
FORT IRWIN, Calif. -- Riding through the sand in a Humvee away from an entry control point on the National Training Center June 11, Sgt. 1st Class Charles Davis embraced one of his most cherished sentiments.
"There's always something you can learn," said the 6-foot-2-inch senior paralegal for Headquarters, Headquarters Company, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, as he left the point of entry to one of his brigade's notional forward operating bases set in the vastness of the Mojave Desert.
Davis, currently stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., has served as an Army paralegal for 15 years, he's deployed to Kuwait once and Iraq twice, and he's been to the expansive training center four times now.
But still, he said, he's doing things that, even in the bulk of his extensive career, have never much crossed his path.
"I've predominantly punished Soldiers who have committed offenses," he said of the past decade and a half he's spent in the courts martial facet of military justice.
But now, he's learning to deal with Afghan locals -- role players from the country who offer units at NTC a realistic experience. His main focus: pay them compensation if the Army damages any of their property or kills any of their farm animals.
"Accidents happen," said Davis, a native of Williamston, N.C., still early into his brigade's month of prep training for a fall deployment to Afghanistan. "We have a lot of vehicles, a lot of Soldiers on deployments for the first time that may not have the experience driving vehicles and things of that nature.
"But when those things happen, we have mechanisms in place to compensate for them."
The scenario in this case: pay a local 10,500 Afghani -- amounting to 217 U.S. dollars -- for damages to his vehicle after Soldiers in a convoy accidentally ran into it.
It's an unfortunate situation and perhaps a costly mistake by U.S. forces, but to Davis, it's more about the way a mistake is dealt with than the mistake itself.
"It shows our maturity and responsibility," he said. "If we were just destroying stuff, and we weren't owning up to it and actually compensating people for it, I think that would be a worse thing."
"We're that face of the Army that says, 'the Army messed up,' " said Spc. Elisabeth Barnett, Davis's driver and assistant for his June 11 mission and a paralegal herself. "We want to make right with the public, so I think that's awesome.
"The legal system is the face to the public."
Barnett held Davis's rifle as he met peacefully with the role-playing Afghan local -- one of his first real encounters with the traditions of Afghan culture.
Afterward, he talked about some things he could have done better, noting that he should have returned the local's traditional greeting, "As-Salamu Alaykum," because even for someone from small town North Carolina, the little cultural nuances are important.
"It's kind of small-minded to only view the world from your point of view," Davis said. "To be a better well-rounded person, I think we should embrace all cultures, because I think we all have something we can learn from one another."
But to Davis, who admitted his original reasoning for joining the Army at 24 was simply to earn a college degree; it's more about helping others than anything else.
"Somewhere along the line, the ability to serve outweighed the college benefits," he said. "I grew up in a fairly religious community and family, so a lot of my upbringing dealt with helping others.
"It's all about helping your fellow man."
In previous rotations at the training center, Davis has never dealt with claims for local nationals, and while at JBLM, he said, civilians handle claims for residents of the surrounding communities.
But here he has some time to work out all the kinks before the brigade's Afghanistan deployment.
"With any job you do, no one ever knows everything," Davis said. "There's always something you can improve on, that you can learn to make you a better person and add to your toolkit."
That's especially the mentality out here, where curveballs are thrown, missions can change at a moment's notice and the learning never ends.