FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. –
Tragedy greets the American psychological operations team as it goes through the village of Pine Branch, on a distant continent. Someone in a Humvee has killed a little girl, and the villagers are angry. The Soldiers in full battle rattle are stopped by the police chief, who shouts, "You should be ashamed of yourselves."
As they approach the family's home, the girl's aunt shouts through tears, "Haven't you done enough damage already?" She shows the Soldiers where the girl was struck, her stuffed animal still in the road. "That is her blood," says the distraught aunt. She takes out a photograph. "This is Dora."
The team leader, Spc. David Anderson of the 362nd PSYOP Co. out of St. Louis, Missouri, takes off his helmet and sunglasses to appear less threatening, and listens with concern as she expresses her rage and grief. "Is there anything I can do to help you?" he asks, promising to talk to his commander about providing funeral expenses. While he speaks, another Soldier takes notes, and a third stands guard.
An Army instructor observes the whole thing.
Pine Branch is actually a mock village at Fort Hunter Liggett, California. The scenario is just one of many the PSYOP Army Reserve Soldiers (along with Marines, who do not have their own PSYOP school) will encounter in their eight days in the field on this past June. The villagers are role players who inhabit their characters like pros, even though most are from the local community. The intent is to provide the most realistic encounters possible where the Soldiers may need to quell disputes, build trust, gather information, and help a town reclaim its autonomy from enemy influence.
The course, part of The Army School System (TASS) of the 80th Training Command, puts students through a month-long course culminating in an 8- to 10-day village scenario where they are faced with angry townspeople and egotistical leaders, as well as those who are willing to work with the foreign military to achieve peace. The scenarios test their wits as they learn people-skills necessary to mission success.
Following the after-action review (AAR), Anderson said he didn't expect the training to be so personal and emotional. "I was expecting more of a cookie-cutter kind of situation. It's definitely fun, and I'm enjoying it."
Each participant takes turns as team lead, recorder, and security during the various scenarios, which include a farmer's market, threats against the town, and destruction of property by careless Army personnel. Each encounter is a chance to build trust, learn to navigate cultural differences, and know what it's like to be seen as a hostile force by some.
In the AAR which follows each scenario, instructor Sgt. 1st Class Don Fabian from the PSYOP command, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, told them, "Be personal. Let them know you care. This (situation) is detrimental to coalition forces operating in the area and you want the people to know we are working to prevent this from happening again."
He criticized the security person, Spc. David Schneider, for having his hands on his weapon when tensions got hot. "You're trying to calm them," he said. "Unless it starts to get violent and they're pushing and shoving, you don't have your hands on the weapon. You push it off to the side."
Schneider, from the 345th PSYOP Co. out of Dallas, Texas, later said, "They definitely put a lot of thought and effort into this, more so than I expected. I was taken off guard that there were people for us to interact with."
The recorder, Spc. Michael McKimm with the 350th PSYOP out of Twinsburg, Ohio, said, "There's only so much you can learn sitting in a classroom." He is reclassifying from a 12B combat engineer military occupational specialty (MOS). He said the situation could have gone one of two ways. "Either we were successful in consoling the aunt, or it could turn bad real quickly. So, that had me a little bit nervous."
Another team's mission was to build rapport with the town minister. Staff Sgt. Justin Villorante, 306th PSYOP Co. in Los Alamitos, California, said, "The most important point I learned here today is to come out of yourself and consider somebody else's perspective."
Spc. Kevin Church from the 345th PSYOP Battalion out of Lewisville, Texas, said psychological operations is really being a sales person, and that fits right into his desire to be an entrepreneur. "We're selling products, selling ideas, and influencing people."
A third team visited the belligerent police chief. During the conversation they were interrupted by a disruptive prisoner in the next room, who was repeatedly beaten by the chief. Clearly uncomfortable with that treatment, Staff Sgt. Ryan Moore with the 344th PSYOP Co. Austin, Texas, first complimented the chief on doing a great job keeping the town secure and asked what the Army could do to help. He also convinced the chief to allow them to take the prisoner into custody, stating the reasons it would benefit the town.
"Letting the town see that you let a medic come look at him," said Moore, "now I can bring a good report to my commander."
"That makes sense," said the chief.
Moore, who is a high school history teacher, is reclassifying from his Reserve MOS as an 11B infantryman. He said, "Infantry is always kinetic and a hands-on, action-type job. PSYOP is thinking outside of the box and trying to come up with new ways of doing things. I think it's really pertinent to the type of fight we're in, that we have been in for the past 17-18 years."
The biggest lesson for him is planning and adaptability. "Having a good team to give you good ideas, being able to adjust to whatever they throw out at you is the biggest thing."
When an entire herd of goats critical to the town's livelihood is killed by another coalition vehicle, the whole town is enraged. "How are you going to replace a genetic line that is lost?" wails one woman. "They keep telling us they're here to help us. Well, this isn't exactly helping us now, is it?"
Cpl. Tyler Horton, Marine Corps Information Operations Center, Quantico, Virginia led the team to talk to the farmer whose goats were killed. "I deeply apologize on behalf of the whole United States Army about this situation," he said in a Kentucky drawl. "I don't want this to impair our relationship. I have grown very fond of everybody in this town and I would like to see us as friends," he told the farmer. "What would you like us to do?"
"This could be an international incident," angrily claims the farmer.
When the onlookers continue shouting, Horton, the farmer and the preacher step into an office to discuss the situation in a calmer fashion. Horton said there would be a financial compensation as well as actions taken to make sure the civilians and their property would be safe. "Sir, I'm hurt by this. I feel at home in this place. It reminds me of my hometown. I'm really sorry about this."
Outside, Church led the townspeople in prayer, which quieted the protest. Church later said, "I know they're a religious kind of community. Whenever something tragic happens in a lot of religious communities they tend to get together and pray about it. I thought it would be a good idea to do the same thing here. That communicated the spirit of us being sorry and wanting to correct the situation."
The instructor praised the team for how they handled the contentious situation.
After the AAR Horton said, "Those were definitely curve balls. We had to adapt and overcome very quickly. It was a very good scenario."
Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Skolnick, who manages the field training exercises, comes from Fort Bragg to assist the schoolhouse. He's deployed to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan as a PSYOP specialist. He said of the Soldiers and four Marines in the course, "By now they've gotten into the rhythm of being able to communicate with the key leaders. Some people know to pull the antagonizer out of the crowd, talk everyone down and communicate their intent clearly. One of my detachment NCOs told me there's a team that he'd deploy with right now, they're just that good."
On the 8th and final day in Pine Branch, the PSYOP teams did not know the role players were instructed to be particularly vociferous and strident in order to test the teams' ability to control the chaos. A town meeting was conducted outdoors, and there were factions shouting at each other about a threatening letter received overnight, and vandalism in the town. The PSYOP teams were on the periphery as the mayor pleaded with the townspeople. "Will we continue with our association with the United States Army?" he asks the crowd. "They have done nothing but help us. Do we want to be left out in the cold and have them leave?"
During the AAR, Fabian said, "That was a little crazy. Sadly, your passiveness facilitated a good bit of this, right? There were people riled up, angry. You guys need to be involved in calming that. You guys are (supposed to be) mentoring and leading these people."
He gave examples of how they could have interacted with the various personalities to gain control of the meeting.
"You are the calming force. You are the behavior changers. You control this whole environment. So when this thing gets out of control, sadly that was on y'all. There were some good attempts, some good intentions."
Fabian stressed that mission planning should always include how to handle disruptive people, and that means influencing the town officials to act in ways that calms the situation, without the military taking charge themselves.
Fabian continued, "The best PSYOPers don't get any credit for all the great stuff that's happening. You let the mayor look good, you let the sheriff look good, you let the preacher look good. Now you know how to facilitate these people."
Anderson said the rapport they had developed with some of the villagers paid off. "A lot of those key individuals stood up for us." He said the role players inhabited their roles so well it was difficult to know if they were just acting, or were genuinely angry. Putting the mission first kept that from hindering him.
McKimm said that making mistakes during training is the best way to learn. "When you go downrange, that's the kind of place you don't want to make mistakes."
Villorante said, "In other MOSs outside of PSYOP you're used to taking direct action, going right at an objective. PSYOP is more complex. You have to feel a situation out. You're trying to operate through other people and facilitate others to accomplish a mission, which is a new perspective for me and something invaluable that I learned from the town hall today."
Villorante added, "The authenticity of the role players really contributed to the quality of the training."
The biggest lesson for Horton was, "Expect the unexpected. Plan ahead as far as possible." He quoted Mohammed Ali: "'Everybody has a plan until they get hit.'"
Shortly after the contentious town meeting, the role players became their real selves as they greeted the Soldiers and Marines they put through the emotional wringer. One of the most antagonistic personalities was all smiles as she shook their hands. "Remember," she said, "I was playing a role!"
For the new PSYOPers, that summed up their own experiences. They, too, have roles to play as they deploy to work with friendly communities against hostile entities. By being true to the Army Values, they can manifest empathy, sincerity, and human connection to accomplish the mission and help a country regain its self-reliance.