HOHENFELS, GERMANY –
Chilled winds gusted through a mock village as a dark orange pickup truck leads a convoy of four non-tactical vehicles. The grumbling sound of nearby engines caused the heads of curious role players to turn towards the road. As the trucks drive in a wide bicircular curve, the convoy eventually settles in front of a tattered brick building.
Slowly opening their vehicular doors, several soldiers clad in multiple integrated laser engagement systems, or MILES gear, dismounted onto crackling gravel. As more eyes between the soldiers and role-playing villagers met, the air of curiosity faded. For the role players, it was just another day of going through the same script, but for the soldiers, it was another opportunity to sharpen their engagement skills.
“If used correctly, a civil affairs unit can do quite a bit of work for the combatant commander or brigade combat team commander in this case,” Maj. Samuel Stahlmann, a civil affairs officer with the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion and guest observe coach trainer, said. “Our people can do a lot to deconflict the space, and if we can make the job easier for the supported commander, then we’ve done our job.”
30 Soldiers with C Co/418th Civil Affairs Battalion, the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, and the 353rd Civil Affairs Command participated in Combined Resolve 18 here from May 1 - May 6, 2023. Combined Resolve is a U.S. Army exercise with over 4,000 Soldiers from 15 different NATO allies and partners focusing on fostering partnership and building interoperability, emphasizing mission command, sustainment, and fires.
The exercise provided opportunities for integrated, total force training with the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Reserve, and U.S. Army National Guard. In addition, the combined training opportunity improves interoperability among participating allies and partners, enhancing their ability to respond more effectively to regional crises.
Stahlmann said when civil affairs soldiers deal with unified action partners, they must understand the full scope of the operational environment, which is crucial for maneuver commanders to move through battle spaces uncontested.
“Exercises like this gives soldiers experience in a real-world environment and helps with interoperability because we have so many NATO partners,” Stahlman said. “You can't replicate this at home station, so being here is particularly helpful.”
As the cluster of soldiers broke off into three civil affairs teams (CATS), three Romanian soldiers with the 1st CIMIC Battalion (Batalionul 1 Cooperare Civil-Militară) approached the group and joined themselves, one soldier per CAT.
Dispersing in different directions, the teams walked throughout the village, engaging some role players with handshakes and others with friendly smiles. While one team walked behind a corridor, an adjacent team was approached by an elderly couple, with the woman waving her hands in circular gestures. Her steel grey hair and glasses were sprinkled with dust as she spoke Germanic to the group.
The team halted as three soldiers formed around the man and woman. After conversing with the two role players, the team members talked amongst one another, voicing their respective courses of action about addressing the complaints of dust clouds caused by multiple convoys throughout the city.
“Working with the Romanians is helping me to learn how CIMI operates differently from civil affairs,” Spc. Zachary Meyer, a civil affairs specialist with C Co/418th Civil Affairs Battalion, said. “I think we're both learning how different we operate during large-scale combat operations, so it's an adjustment and learning experience on both parts. Overall, this is good training.”
Within his civilian capacity, Meyer said he operates as a global security operations center manager for Block Incorporated conducting threat analysis, risk intelligence, travel risk, and physical security for all its offices and employees. Meyer said what appealed to him joining the U.S. Army Reserve and civil affairs was the “small team” functional specialty along with an opportunity to travel.
“I was born in Germany and I'm a Army brat,” Meyer said. “My dad was stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base, and I was born in Heidelberg, but I've never been back to Germany since I was born. When the unit said, ‘Hey, you're going to Germany, I said, all right, sounds good.’ I had no idea it was like this, though.”
Conducting world-class training events such as Combined Resolve allows exercise participants to train alongside Allied and partner nations in a dynamic and realistic training environment provided by the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC).
“Civil affairs has a lot to do with community relations,” Spc. Jakob Clendening, a civil affairs specialist with C Co/418th Civil Affairs Battalion, said. “When we go to other countries, we’re not necessarily providing resources; we’re connecting individuals with organizations that may be able to help them in the long run.”
Clendening said civil affairs reservists don't have the opportunity to perform their duties daily, and the repetition of utilizing their engagement skills leads to team fluidity which helps CATS identify actionable solutions.
“We're out here to help communities and have to talk to many different people,” Clendening said. “I think what’s more important than saying, ‘Hey, I'm going help you while I'm here’ is helping to build a sustainable community that lasts longer than when we're there.”
After several key leader engagements, one by one, teams maneuver and snake their way through the streets back to their rendezvous point. As the soldiers converge together, a beeping noise goes off, signaling that an enemy element is engaging the group.
The group takes a react-to-contact posture as soldiers take cover behind their vehicles as the role players seem unphased, and the action unfolds several meters away. As several minutes pass, team sergeants instruct their teams to mount into their vehicles. Whatever information was gathered or conditions discussed, they would have to wait another time.
“I'd say the biggest challenge of being an observe coach trainer is keeping quiet,” Stahlmann said. “If an enemy tank is rearing its head over a hill, we want to point it out to get the unit to act, but we can’t give away any clues. It's critical that we remain as quiet and observant as possible. We’re not necessarily part of the game so much as regulating the game.”
The game of civil engagement may involve many teams and players, but it’s not how one plays; it’s how far one will go to do what’s necessary to win.