Originally created 07/09/01

Fort offers foreign troops training



It was underwear that caught Mihkel's attention.

"People here wear funny clothes, the baggy clothes," he said. "Very few people in my country do that.

"You don't walk on the street with your underwear showing."

The second lieutenant in the Estonian air force is at Fort Gordon until August learning how to defend a country most Americans hear little about.

Mihkel, an air traffic controller, is enrolled in the Basic Officer Signal Course at Fort Gordon. This is his second time in America. Last year, he was stationed in San Antonio.

The officer's full name is being kept secret by the U.S. State Department for fear of persecution in his homeland.

Each year, more than 200 international soldiers come to Fort Gordon to learn communications and computer science skills. Their training is part of an American obligation, a spokesman said.

"The bottom line is that we sell a lot of equipment overseas, and we have to train them on it," said Walt Andrae, an international student officer at Fort Gordon. "We sell signal stuff here.

"But most of what we do is train people in leadership courses."

America's commitment also provides an opportunity for American and foreign armed forces to create a bond that could prove rewarding in the future.

"When we go into an area like Bosnia, it's a heck of a lot easier to establish a relationship if they already know the equipment and how we operate," Mr. Andrae said.

International soldiers such as Mihkel can train at any installation dealing with signal, armor division, infantry or artillery. They can use this information to further their careers back home.

"A good many people who come through here have become generals, prime ministers and diplomats," Mr. Andrae said.

Mihkel is taking a transponder course at Fort Gordon. The device, used in military aircraft, emits a signal that alerts air and ground units if it is friendly.

Because America uses transponders, the international officers train in Augusta. Their education, however, reaches far beyond the confines of the base.

Foreign soldiers learn about a different culture, and, in return, give Americans another perspective about Western life.

"For some of these guys, it isn't just the trouble of going to school; it's dealing with an entirely different culture," Mr. Andrae said.

The language barrier is addressed at the Defense Language Institute in San Antonio. The English language isn't that difficult for Mihkel, because he was stationed in America last year.

But his schoolmate Martin - a Tanzanian army officer - is in America for the first time.

TANZANIA, ONCE ruled by the British empire, was created by the independent union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964. The East Africa country is between Kenya and Mozambique. The population of 35 million people speak Swahili, Arabic and English.

Martin, a native of the country's capitol, Dar es Salaam, said America's language is very different from the dialogue of the former British rule.

"American English is like slang English," he said.

Mihkel has observed quite a few differences between America and other foreign countries.

"Everything is so spread out," he said. "If you want to go somewhere, you have to have a car. If don't have a car in the States, you don't go anywhere.

"At home, things are so close you can take a bus or walk. You can take a car, too, but our gas prices are high. It's 12 kroons for a liter, which equals $2.82 for a gallon."

One American dollar equals 17 kroons. The lieutenant had to convert his native currency to buy clothes during his stay here. That's when Mihkel discovered American style and music.

"There is some rap music, but in Europe, the sound is mostly techno and club music," Mihkel said. "It's freaky."

Estonia, located in Eastern Europe, borders the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland. The former Soviet state received its independence in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. With a population of more than 1.4 million people, the economy is supported by private industries in energy, telecommunications and railways.

It has a completely different climate from Georgia. Estonians are used to two months of summer, from July to August. The remainder of the year is rain or snow.

"WHEN I LEFT my country in January, it was zero degrees Fahrenheit," he said. "I came here, I was walking around in T-shirts and shorts.

"Everybody thought I was crazy."

While Mihkel enjoys Augusta's weather, Martin has found it unbearable.

"It's very hot in my country," he said. "People wear light clothing to keep cool.

"I thought it was too cold when I got here."

The weather might have been frigid, but foreign soldiers receive a warm welcome from their American sponsors.

The liaisons invite them to outings allowing the foreign soldiers to experience different U.S. cities. In return, the American soldiers get a chance to make an international contact.

Second Lt. Christopher Liston had not heard of Estonia before he was assigned as Mihkel's American sponsor.

The American Army officer said he would do it again.

"It's a chance to meet a new person," 2nd Lt. Liston said. "A lot of people that don't sponsor never get to meet them and learn about another country."

The sponsorship also opened the door for 2nd Lt. Liston to make a friend.

"I'm going to Korea for my first duty station, and we're planning to hook up in Europe in about a year," he said.

Reach Albert Ross at (706) 823-3339 or ajrossjr@hotmail.com.

Program details

International student officers at Fort Gordon, about 7,000 soldiers, train with the United States military annually.

The cost of the five-month program is paid by their home country. If they pass the basic course, the soldiers have an opportunity to return for the advanced course.