Dorjan Arapi of Albania, Danko Jovanovic of Montenegro and Johan Agredo of Colombia are among the 60 international students attending the Sergeants Major Academy on Fort Bliss.
Each noncommissioned officer, equivalent rank of master sergeant in their armies, was specially selected by their ministries of defense or army and the U.S. combatant command responsible for that area to attend the 39-week course.
That was the first step on the road to El Paso from the Balkans and South America. Each then had to show a mastery of English. To help in that, they attended a specialized nine-week English course from the Defense Language Institute in San Antonio before their class began.
Command Sgt. Maj. David Yates, course director at USASMA, said, the international students "do a great job because they know they are representing their country. A lot of time it’s the first time their country has sent someone to the academy," as was the case with Jovanovic.
Their expenses are picked up in a number of ways – some with funds from the United States Defense or State Departments and others at their own countries’ expense.
Jovanovic wanted to learn about American culture, do a lot of networking, meet a lot of different people and travel about the country.
Dorjan Arapi of Albania, Danko Jovanovic of Montenegro
and Johan Agredo of Columbia are three of 60 international students attending the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas. When they graduate, the international students ‘take everything we have here and emulate it, translate them and institute the same policies and procedures we do,’ said
Michael Huffman, who directs the academy’s international students program.
"From the students here, I wanted to learn about their experiences. Almost all of them are veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq. I also got to learn from the international students" about what their armies are like and what life is like in their countries. He soon will be heading to Afghanistan, and this interaction he believes will help him there.
"I am very impressed with the NCOs here," Agredo, who had previously trained at Fort Eustis, Va., said. "One of the biggest challenges NCOs face in my country is to get the responsibility and trust from the officers."
"I am taking away the learning process," Arapi said about the manner in which the classes are taught.
Pointing to Jovanovic, he said, "We are coming from a region still undergoing transformation, new democratic countries. I have to rebuild my profile [as a noncommissioned officer] along western standards."
A veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, Arapi had come to the United States before to train.
The Albanian and Montenegrin armies are professional armies while the Colombian is a mix of conscripts for 18 months who then leave the armed forces and, if they want to serve as professionals, re-enlist for the noncommissioned officer schools.
"Our army is always working under time pressures," Arapi said about the tempo of training and deployment. "Thanks to the U.S. and the U.S. taxpayers we get the chance to come here and learn. It will help us and our region."
Michael Huffman, who directs the academy’s international students program, said, "The program has grown exponentially over the last 10 years because of the war on terror."
Students from 39 countries have or are now attending the academy.
"We have the most international students scheduled to attend next year."
The other Army schools with international students are the War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., and the Intermediate Level Education class at the Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
For the first time, Surinam, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Tonga will be sending students to the sergeants major course.
"Our biggest challenge is introducing [international students] to Western critical thinking," Huffman said in explaining how the first two weeks in the English language course in San Antonio engages them.
In showing them films such as "Twelve Angry Men" and "The Caine Mutiny," he said they provide vivid examples of "wanting you to question these policies and procedures."
Even in former Warsaw Pact nations, "they don’t question authority" such as a teacher. "We have to break them of that, and we have to teach them how to interact in a small group environment."
That time also gives the international students the opportunity to work in small groups and learn how to avoid confrontation in discussions of contradictory ideas.
"By the time they leave here, they have no problem bringing up ideas or saying something is wrong," Huffman said. For some others, this is the first time they have had a female instructor in their careers. "We do our best to brief them."
In a meeting in Poland, Huffman said the Polish army chief of staff said that he was meeting resistance from fellow officers in building a strong noncommissioned officer corps along American lines. The chief said that this would give officers "a right hand man to shoulder responsibility and load. That’s what he wanted."
He looked at building a physical fitness program for the Army and instilling in the noncommissioned officers the willingness to seek out new responsibilities and duties. "That’s hard for them. They don’t move. It’s not like the American Army where you move every three years."
Huffman added that one challenge the Poles faced when selecting their first sergeant major of the army was "no one wanted to move to Warsaw. The best candidates in their regional commands didn’t want to re-locate."
When they graduate, the international students "take everything we have here and emulate it, translate them and institute the same policies and procedures we do," especially the ones who have recently joined or want to join NATO.
In their first meeting as a class, Yates said he asks the international students to rise. "I tell [all the students] that you’ll run into them again, on the operational side, when you’re out there doing things."
Using an example of an American sergeant major working with his Afghan counterpart, an icebreaking comment could be: "I know your boss. We went to school together. Instantly, there’s a connection. … It’s just the exposure."
Russia and China have sent delegations to the academy. "They come here to see how we model ourselves," Charles Guyette, the academy’s chief of staff, said.
The 10 to 15 nations who visit annually want to understand how the Army gives its noncommissioned officers "this kind of authority and skills."
Huffman, who served in Desert Storm and later in Afghanistan and Iraq, added, "If we can expose the American students to diverse cultures and he can become familiar with them and understand culture, he is going to be able to perform better in the theater of operations, given that Afghanistan is going through a build-up of forces" from the United States and other allies.
"We all grew up differently and in mixing these different cultures together, you gain a different perspective," Guyette said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler, commandant, said, having international students at the academy "builds relationships [and] it just adds to the understanding between us and our partner nations."