In the News

News | June 13, 2009

Cultural barriers crumble during SHARED ACCORD 2009

By Cpl. Jad Sleiman U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe

BEMBEREKE, Benin – Cultural barriers came crumbling down as Marines and Beninese soldiers took part in a joint training exercise that started as an awkward meeting of strangers and ended with the exchange of smiles, names and email addresses through broken French and English.

Reserve Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, 4th Marine Division partnered with Beninese soldiers in peacekeeping operations training that covered baton carries and strikes, as well as riot control in Exercise SHARED ACCORD 2009 at the Bembereke Military Information Center.

With the aid of a U.S. Army interpreter and a Beninese translator, the Marines and Beninese soldiers were paired off, with a few from each military, holding a pad while others from both practiced strikes with a foam baton.

Marine Forces Africa Non-lethal Weapons Liaison Officer Tony Lewis instructed in English while his translators echoed in French.

Initially, both groups struck at one another lightly, but as Kilo's first sergeant and company commander dawned foam suits and began asking the Beninese for all they had, war cries and wild swings replaced meek jabs.

"I think that was the big groundbreaker here; they're getting real training and having fun," said Maj. Brian Harvey, Kilo's company commander.

Later, Harvey would take on all Beninese foam baton-armed challengers as the first break from training quickly divulged into impromptu, yet padded sparring matches between the troops.

Spc. Mike Samuels of the 19th Special Forces Group based at Camp Williams, Utah, was one of Lewis' translators. His Special Forces background deals specifically with training indigenous forces.

"When there's horse play like that it means they feel comfortable with us," said Samuels.

Lance Cpl. Josh Wilcoxson, a Kennett, Miss., native and infantryman, attacked an unsuspecting Beninese soldier with his foam baton. The soldier, likewise armed, returned playful blows as the two fenced.

Such playfulness, said Wilcoxson, helped both parties feel like equals.

That kind of mutual respect is important, especially considering the Beninese's less than friendly experiences with other foreigners.

"Racism is usually a problem," said Sgt. Emmanuel Ablo of the Beninese Army. "But not with the Marines."

Other Beninese simply enjoyed using the gear the Marines brought with them, especially the foam protective suits.

"My friend volunteered me, but I am not scared," said Pvt. Ghislain Tokpovi of the Beninese Army, as Marines helped him into the suit before a line of troops took their turn battering him.

Tokpovi would later team up with a fellow Beninese soldier to take down Kilo 1st Sgt. Michael Bowen of Buffalo, N.Y., with foam weapons as he wore his protective suit and called out "c'mon, get some! Is that all you got?"

Near the close of the exercise, the islands of digital desert camouflage worn by the Marines and the islands of striped jungle camouflage worn by the Beninese came together as service members from each nation took turns taking pictures together and trading contact information using the few words each knew of each other's language.

According to Ablo, in the beginning, most Marines only spent time with other Marines.

"We don't speak English, they don't speak French, but it would be nice if they would come and say bon jour," said Ablo. "Military is universal."

He later witnessed a change: Marines posing with Beninese for pictures, attempting to learn catches of French as the exercise progressed.

One Kilo Marine, however, spoke fluent French.

"I told my French teacher I'd never use French in my life," said Lance Cpl. Roger Barnes, an infantryman and Hernando, Miss. native. "But here I am using it."

Barnes helped lead the Beninese during the riot control portion of the exercise, calling out formation and advancement commands in French.

The Beninese soldiers will likely be called upon to use such riot control skills if deployed in support of the African Union or the United Nations, said Lewis.

For other Marines, the language barrier would remain, but they would at least feel more comfortable around their Beninese counterparts following the exercise.

"We took pictures with them; they enjoy us being here," said Lance Cpl. Corey Hastings, an infantryman from Falkner, Miss.

After the Marines finished training with the Beninese in their riot control methods, the Beninese returned the favor, teaching the Marines how things are done in Benin.

The soldiers lined up in two groups: one wore riot gear and carried shields, and the second wore ferns and brandished plastic bottle for weapons.

The "rioters" rhythmically chanted in French, "We are the rebels, we do not want you here," while the riot control line beat their batons against their shields and advanced to quell the so called rebels in a fierce, yet calculated clash to cheers from the watching Marines.

Both parties seemed to leave with a new respect for their counterparts.

"It's impressive how impeccable they are," said Sgt. Fernand Adjoy of the Beninese Army. "The Marines are above correction."

Lance Cpl. Jesse Thrasher, an infantryman and Corinth, Miss. native, remembers struggling under the Beninese soldiers' powerful blows during the baton training, learning at least one lesson from the West African troops: the Beninese weren't afraid to dish out some pain.

SHARED ACCORD is a scheduled, combined U.S.-Benin exercise designed to improve interoperability and mutual understanding of each nation's military tactics, techniques and procedures. Humanitarian and civil affairs events are scheduled to run concurrent with the military training. The exercise is scheduled to conclude June 25.