A quick glance around a classroom at Maxwell Air Force Base looks more like a United Nations meeting. Flags for Nigeria, Japan, Macedonia and many more countries adorn the students green flight suits along with squadron patches and aviation accomplishments. That’s because this class is called “Understanding and Working With the U.S. Military.” Dr. Brian Selmeski is the instructor.
“We have one civilian, nine military ranging from Captain to Lieutenant Colonel they are from ten different countries and between them they must speak oh at least 25 languages”
Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery is home to Air University and today’s class is a part of their graduate curriculum. It’s a change for the Defense Department, which spent years training U.S. troops to understand customs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, foreign servicemen and women are being taught to understand the American military.
“We believe that to build a partnership you have to not just understand your counterpart but they have to understand you,” says Selmeski. “So we’ve started not just to study other peoples and other cultures but to leverage our international officers to help understand and convey what makes American military personnel tick.”
In this setting no one is judged and conversation flows freely. As a result not everyone agrees with the source material or with each other. That alone is a novel concept to Major William Racal. He pilots helicopters for the Air Force of the Philippines.
“You could always say no to your instructors, you could always say not that’s not right. Well in the Philippines you can’t do that.”
Discussions like this help soldiers better understand American culture, but class time is not the only way these students get a taste of all things American. They are also living and interacting with their families in Montgomery. Captain Peter Hribeseck is a maintenance engineer in the Slovenian Air Force. He says his family thought they knew Americans well. That is, until they got here.
“My wife said “Yeah no problem I can accept this it will be easy for me but then there was some kind of cultural shock. Everything was different,” says Hribeseck. “Not only language and food there was many differences like schools, medical systems, educational systems…”
The trials and tribulations Captain Hribeseck and his fellow classmates experience while navigating American culture are all fodder for the course. One such instance sticks out in particular.
“This was something just as fundamental as “Why did somebody take me into their master bedroom?” says Dr. Selmelski. “Because in many parts of the world that is to use the students words a sacred matrimonial space. We wouldn’t dream of showing somebody from outside of the family where the husband and wife sleep and we were able to talk that through.”
At the end of the semester these ten men will move on. The hope is they will act like ambassadors and pass along what they’ve learned when they go home. That raises the question of just how much can ten men do to educate their peers. Robert Blau is the State Department Advisor to Air University. He says the answer to that question lies in the men themselves.
“There likely to be selected because they are going to do well in the rest of their career. I mean there’s an honor roll here at Air University that recognizes graduates of any of the schools here that have gone on at least a chief of their Air Force or military service and there’s hundreds of them that have done that.”
Blau says as the U.S. military deals with cuts related to sequestration or a reduced role in overseas conflicts, the time spent at Air University by these foreign soldiers becomes even more invaluable.
“Having partners in other countries that have been through this kind of international exchange program for their education is gonna help. Actually the lower amount of money that we have the more valuable this becomes because at that point we expect our partners to shoulder more of the burden so this investment in international education is going to pay off even more I think.”
But the benefits of the class go beyond the ten men and the others they may interact with later in their careers. At the end of the class they will also compile all the content into a U.S. military culture guide.
“It’s not a graduate level seminar at that point; it’s a field guide,” says Selmeski. “So we’re doing all of this deep thinking in order to… Understand it ourselves? Yes. But also to boil it down and share that with more of our international partners."
The success of the United States military’s future global operations may just have to give thanks to a little ten student class at Air University in Montgomery, Alabama.