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DefendAmerica News - Cultural Sensitivity Makes a Difference

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Cultural Sensitivity
Makes a Difference

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By Staff Sgt. Susan German
122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
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BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 19, 2004 — In an environment where split-second decisions are a necessity, it is important to understand when something is right so that you can recognize when something is wrong. Being able to understand key phrases or using appropriate gestures may make a difference.

Being aware of cultural differences can help soldiers take the appropriate action and demonstrate sensitivity to religious practices, especially for deployed service members during this holy month of Ramadan.

To assist in this endeavor, the 1st Cavalry Division's Civil Affairs Section conducted Iraqi cultural awareness training for the 458th Engineer Battalion, Oct. 11-12, and they will continue to train soldiers throughout the division.

"How the population feels is fundamental to the success of our mission and a lot of how they feel depends on our behavior," Brig. Gen. Michael Jones, 1st Cavalry Division

The training comes at a time when the division has reached the midway point in its deployment, when soldiers are getting tired, some may be suffering from combat stress, having seen fellow soldiers killed or wounded, said Lt. Col. Rick Welch, the division's civil affairs officer.

The G5 section has been providing training since August. What makes this training unique is that a team of Iraqis provides the Arab perspective. The group was comprised of former military officers, professionals and college students, and it has an interest in talking about their culture in order to help multi-national forces operate more effectively in their culture.

During opening remarks, Brig. Gen. Michael Jones, assistant division commander for maneuver, 1st Cavalry Division, reminded soldiers of the significance of the training.

Jones told the soldiers that it was important for them to understand the role of the Army and their interaction with the Iraqi people, the role of women in Iraqi society and the concept of revenge; and how misunderstandings involving any of those components could lead to problems.

"How the population feels is fundamental to the success of our mission and a lot of how they feel depends on our behavior," Jones said. "So we have to modify our behavior to accommodate the fact that we're operating in an environment where people have a very different cultural perspective."

Jones also reminded soldiers of the cross-cultural values involving dignity, honor and respect and how understanding these values will help increase force protection.

Soldiers learned that revenge is the underlying cause for many of the attacks launched against multi-national forces. People seek revenge to restore their honor and dignity.

"There are things we do that might cause someone to take revenge," Jones said. "We don't want our behavior, as innocent as it may be, to have a negative impact on the folks we're dealing with."

Photo, caption below.
Staff Sgt. Jerry Lavelle, left, a squad leader in Company A, 458th Engineer Battalion, discusses hand gestures with Lt. Col. Rick Welch, civil military affairs officer for the 1st Cavalry Division. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Susan German
Photo, caption below.
Sgt. Melissa Serafini asks a question to an Iraqi team of instructors during Iraqi Cultural Awareness training. Serafini is assigned to Headquarters Company, 458th Engineer Battalion. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Susan German

Following Jones' opening remarks, instructors provided information on the historical aspects of Islam, the treatment of women, food customs, and basic Arab words and phrases. One instructor noted that a simple thing like removing your goggles or sunglasses when speaking to someone allows them to see your eyes and aids in communication. Another instructor asked soldiers to befriend the children, since they will be the future leaders of Iraq.

Many instructors also noted that Iraqis have suffered through three wars since the early '80s, which has resulted in financial problems for many of them. The impact of these wars has led to many widows and orphans, lost income, prostitution, abandoned education, a decline in health services, sexual violence and violation of human rights.

"It's very important for all of us to be aware of the culture that we are now a part of and we are integrating with. We all received training at mobilization, to be able to come here, so we all knew (the basics), but when you hear it from the source, it kind of hits home a little differently," said Staff Sgt. Karen Helsley, of the 458th Engineer Battalion. "I appreciate them coming here and taking the risks that obviously they had to take to come here and help us."