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US Army Utilizes Training in Cultural and Communication Skills

The U.S. Army is using a new training concept as it prepares troops to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. It's called "Theater Immersion," and is designed to give the soldiers a series of experiences that mirror, as closely as possible, what they will face on the battlefield, including roadside bombs, sniper attacks and dealing with Iraqi civilians.

At a training center in the southern state of Mississippi, soldiers who are about to be deployed to Iraq are learning how to better communicate with the Iraqi people.

Arabic-speakers, including some from Iraq, are pretending to be a group of disgruntled Iraqi villagers. The group was hired to help train soldiers, and the Arab-speakers travel to different military bases in the United States. Today, along with some local people hired to help out, they are at Camp Shelby, a U.S. National Guard base in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

In this training exercise, the crowd's list of demands includes telling the soldiers they want them to get their water and electricity going again. Through a translator, the soldiers discuss the problems with a village leader.

Demonstrating newly-taught skills, a soldier says, "Calm Down. We can negotiate."

Besides field training, the soldiers receive classroom instruction on Iraqi culture. A military instructor demonstrates how to shake hands. "Shaking hands is normal. They shake hands with you during conversation and after conversation."

The way a hand is waved, a finger pointed, or sounds made with a tongue, can mean entirely different things to an American and Iraqi -- and may be very offensive.

Even something as simple as eating could be insulting. During the holy month of Ramadan, for example, Muslims do not eat or drink during the day. The soldiers were told not to eat in front of the Iraqi people during that time.

In another exercise, an Iraqi woman is being searched. She is told to follow the motions of a soldier facing her. While the Iraqi men are patted down, it is forbidden for a male soldier to touch a woman. If the woman is cooperative, she is permitted to show she's not concealing anything dangerous by rolling up her sleeves and pressing down on her garment. Otherwise, a female soldier will search her.

The woman and her family are political refugees who have been in the U.S. for four years. She feels she's helping both the Iraqis and Americans.

This Iraqi woman says the sacrifice is necessary. "It's not an easy job, but a sacrifice that needs to made in order to avoid casualties in Iraq. My friends and families have to go through these searches, including my sister and mother."

An Iraqi man also helps the soldiers during training. Earlier this year, he went to Iraq to visit his family for the first time in 10 years. "I'm doing my best to build my country, and all the good Iraqi people they need to take over and rebuild their country."

A trainer says the Iraqis who help the soldiers during training provide the National Guard units with insights they wouldn't normally get. He says, "The actual unit can sit around during breaks and ask questions and learn things about the Iraqi culture."

Young members of the National Guard say the cultural training has given them a lot of food for thought.

One member said, "Just learn how to respect their families, you just have to gain their respect." Another said, "The hand gestures that we do that are good are completely different over there, completely opposite." A female Guard member said, "They didn't really talk about how the male Iraqis talk to the American women and I hope they just treat us as soldiers, not view us as women, and don't expect us to follow the standards that their women do."

The soldiers also say they hope they'll be able to read subtle clues by the Iraqis. Those clues may, in the long run, not only save their lives, but any Iraqis with them.