ISSN 2330-717X

Instructors Strive for Realism at Civilian Course


By Elaine Wilson


Rory Aylward sits on the edge of his seat — pen poised over an already ink-stained page — as he observes a scenario involving U.S. and Afghan officials.

Aylward watches as a female U.S. team leader speaks to an Afghan security forces official through an interpreter, and studies the Americans seated by her side.

In a few minutes, he’ll share his critique of the leader’s performance and provide his insight into the Afghan people. But for now, Aylward sits back, a crooked grin on his face, as he reflects on the hundreds of scenarios he’s witnessed here, and the mistakes he’s seen students repeat again and again.

“There’s a tendency among all people, but especially among Americans, to think people are like us and they’re not,” said Aylward, who’d served in Afghanistan as the Nuristan provincial reconstruction team’s civil affairs officer in 2008. “Good manners in the United States are not necessarily good manners in Afghanistan.”

As an instructor for the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce’s predeployment training here, it’s Aylward’s job to prepare civilians from varying backgrounds and levels of expertise for yearlong deployments to locations around the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq. The program formally stood up in January 2009 to supplement military forces in Iraq, and later on, Afghanistan.


Aylward, a major in the U.S. Army reserve, and the other instructors have just 11 days to ready civilians for the realities of work and life in austere conditions and under the stressors of war. But those days are packed with instruction and scenarios.

“Overwhelmingly they do very well,” Aylward said of his students. “They get it. It’s not going to be like [their] other job.”

The students participate in classes and a series of scenarios to familiarize themselves to their upcoming overseas assignments. They interact with Afghan and Iraqi role players to sharpen their communication and negotiation skills, and are taught cultural awareness and sensitivities, personal security, counterinsurgency, command structures, how to work with an interpreter, as well as how to become part of a team comprising primarily military members.

Training runs the gamut of big-picture missions to boots-on-the-ground knowledge. They travel to training each day in a convoy with soldiers –- all Indiana National Guard members — protecting them as they move in and out of buildings, and they return each night to an austere mock forward operating base.

The course includes two types of cultural training, Aylward explained. The first is learning how to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the other is learning how to operate within the U.S. military.

To boost their cultural awareness, students take turns playing the lead at a series of scenarios with Afghan or Iraqi officials. They’re tasked with discussing everything from stalled construction projects to security issues to problems with pay.

Instructors go to great lengths to create a sense of realism, Aylward said. Each meeting room is draped with the host nation’s flag, and artifacts of the nation are placed around the room. The Iraqi and Afghan role players all are Iraqis and Afghans living in the United States now, but who held similar roles in their home countries. An Afghan police chief, for example, was a former police chief in his nation, and the man who role-plays an Iraqi general is a retired Iraqi general.

The scenarios also integrate real-world events, noted Chris Caimano, a CEW training analyst and former Marine who helped to develop the training program.

“Stalled construction sites, corruption, waste and abuse, we try to hit on all of them,” he said. “All of those major issues we see in theater.”

During scenarios, students speak to the officials through an interpreter, which takes a special skill-set in and of itself. Students, for example, have a tendency to look at the interpreter rather than the official, Aylward explained.

Evaluators look for this tendency and others as they observe the students’ performance and offer insights and corrections. Each scenario, he added, is followed by a “hot wash,” in which evaluators give civilian students tips on what they may have done wrong or areas of improvement.

Earlier that day, Aylward discussed potential issues surrounding pay. On pay day in Afghanistan for example, he explained, workers will take their money and head home. People there don’t have direct deposit or bank cards, so they hand-deliver money to their family. It’s wise to keep that in mind when work remains to be done the next day, he said.

Aylward also delves into Afghan culture to convey the similarities, and differences.

“People in Afghanistan are in some ways very much like Americans, they’re very independent, fierce warriors. They’re smart, very entrepreneurial,” he said. “On the other hand … their cultural sensibilities, particularly about religion, are very different than in the U.S.”

Lessons learned now can avoid major issues down the line, he said.

“It’s better they make a mistake here among friends who are going to mentor them and coach them than they go meet the line director for education in Afghanistan and offend them and ruin their relationship for the rest of the year,” he said.

Instructors take the same care to educate civilian students about the military. While some of the students are veterans with several deployments under their belts, others never have served in the military, or worked alongside troops in any capacity. And students, Aylward explained, can range from Humvee mechanics to senior advisors and decision makers.

For all to be successful, he noted, the students must learn to adapt to a military mind-set and become a seamless member of the team.

“The Army is a culture in and of itself,” Aylward said, using his service as an example. “They do things differently and can be a fairly rigid in their thinking. On the other hand, they’re much more adaptable than a lot of people in civilian life.”

Civilians must learn how to operate and be comfortable in a military environment to thrive, he said. “What we want for the students is, when they get to Afghanistan and have a problem, to feel comfortable enough to go to that young sergeant and say, ‘Sergeant, my body armor doesn’t fit right,’ or ‘What do you want me to do on the Humvee?’”

That comfort level will enable them to fit seamlessly into the team and ensure they’re fully engaged with security, he explained.

This knowledge not only is beneficial to civilians while they’re deployed, but also is advantageous upon their return.

“When they get back to their office job and cubicle, they will have a much better appreciation for [the conditions] that soldiers and Marines and airmen and sailors work with at their day-to-day jobs,” he said. “I think it helps them understand the struggles of the average kid in the field.”

Students also are taught military command structure so they’ll understand how joint operations work, who they’re required to report to, and how they fit into the big-picture mission.

Even veterans may need a refresher, Caimano noted. People who served five, 10, 15 years ago may be familiar with the military, but given the operations tempo, a lot may have changed since.

“When I was in [the Marine Corps], doing two tours of combat made you a legend,” he said. “Nowadays, there are officers who have gone on seven tours.”

The goal is to ensure civilians are ready to serve in every aspect, for as soon as they depart, they’re part of something much bigger than themselves, Aylward said.

“What you do is going to impact the lives of other people,” he said. “You have to accept that. You have to do what’s required of you, expected of you in order to safeguard the lives of other people.”

Challenges aside, civilian students perform remarkably well across the board, Aylward said. They represent different services and backgrounds, but all are volunteers who share a common desire to support the wartime mission.

“I really am impressed with people who are willing to step up to the plate,” he said of his students. “It’s a really demanding job and it’s not for everyone. The people who are willing to step up and do it should be commended for it.”

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