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Psychological Operations calls on different set of weapons

By Cynthia McIntyre | Fort Hunter Liggett Public Affairs Office | June 11, 2019

FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. —

The weapon a Soldier uses isn’t always a rifle or artillery. Soldiers frequently rely on diplomacy and intelligent analysis to avoid using firepower. For the PSYOP (Psychological Operations) team, negotiating tribal affiliations, cultural differences and points of view can make or break mission success.

Fort Hunter Liggett’s United States Army Reserve's 80th Training Command Psychological Operations (PSYOP) course provides realistic scenarios to teach Soldiers and Marines how to negotiate the difficult terrain of cultural, social and political differences when they deploy to other countries. The four-week course is for those reclassifying for a new military occupational skill (MOS). Key skill sets taught are information-gathering and face-to-face communications.

One such training scenario played out at Fort Hunter Liggett in February 2019, when a rural province was recovering from a Communist coup, and villagers (role players) were unsure of who their friends were. American forces were helping to stabilize the province, yet subterfuges and attacks on livestock and water supplies make the Americans suspect. Over 10 days, more than a dozen role players in the mock village both followed scripts and improvised on the fly to make the Soldiers use their negotiating and information-gathering skills, learned in the previous weeks of classroom training, to bring peace.

Role players are usually civilian contractors acting as villagers or protesters during an extended PSYOP training exercise, and they can throw so many wrenches into a simulated operation that the Army team risks losing control.

“Most of the role players have a lot of red, white and blue flowing through them,” said SFC David Capelli, PSYOP instructor for the 80th Training Command’s schoolhouse. “This is their way to support national defense."

Staff Sgt. Brandon Skolnick, PSYOP instructor from Fort Bragg, said Psychological Operations are used in foreign countries that have strategic interest to America. “We persuade and influence a target audience to meet U.S. national objectives,” said Skolnick. “All our messaging is in line with U.S. objectives.”

Scenarios provide a set of skills designed to foster stability in a region, where use of weapons may be a last resort. Skolnick described the situation in the mock village of “Pineland.”

“We’re conducting stability operations, to squeeze out the last bit of resistance through preferably nonlethal means, and to reassure the local population of our plan to stabilize the region,” he said. 

The culmination of the 10-day field exercise was a town hall meeting where the villagers needed to decide if they will choose democracy or Communism. The mayor facilitated the meeting, and the Americans recapped the events that had transpired and the solutions they offered. A vote was taken, and those who still supported the Communists were arrested by the town sheriff. 

When they filed out, the atmosphere changed immediately. Roles were dropped, and they met each other as real people for the first time.

One Soldier commented, “That was some great acting!” as he shook hands with a role player. Another was telling a “villager” his team was frustrated because they needed to run the bad guys out of town but couldn’t figure how. “It really got to us,” he said.

One of the role players complimented a Soldier on his attempts to work with them. “You answered my questions and were very sincere,” she said. “I could tell you guys came from the heart.”

Another role player, Jeanne Paynter of Lockwood, pointed out some failings. “I was the store owner, the bar owner, and the café owner, and you guys never came to talk to me. That’s where the town congregates. That’s where the proprietor and the employees overhear things. I knew about the IEDs, the poppies and the marijuana on Day Two. I knew where the Northerners were staying. You could have rolled them up on Day Two.” 

The staff sergeant was chagrined. “You had that information on Day Two and we just kept going around you.” 

Mistakes learned in training may be the ones that keep mission integrity when it counts.

Paynter is a veteran who enlisted at age 36 and served in Afghanistan. “We pulled security for PSYOP and Civil Affairs,” she said. “The questions I was asking here are questions we were asked over there.” 

She gave an example. “‘What guarantee once the Americans all pull out that (the former occupiers) are not going to go back to doing the same thing they’ve done before?’ That’s the most-asked question that I saw overseas. That’s what people are terrified of.” 

After the meet-and-greet, the PSYOP students were pinned with the regimental crest, while the role players looked on and applauded.

These civilian role players took Soldiers into a fictional world they may one day encounter in reality. It is hoped that the lessons they learned will advance the causes of both countries, and save lives when a new weapon is employed – the power to influence and persuade for the greater good.