SACRAMENTO, Calif. - For U.S. soldiers who traveled to India for exercise Yudh Abhyas 2014, many of the things they saw and experienced might have seemed unusual or exotic.
Monkeys were a common sight running over rooftops or swinging from low-hanging branches and telephone lines. Docile cows sauntered into training areas and through the crowded Ranikhet market where soldiers shopped after the training day was done. Soldiers were briefed to keep an eye out for man-eating leopards before running on mountain roads. They got the chance to attend a religious ceremony bursting with color and sound during the Hindu festival of Navratri. And when the clouds cleared as they traveled to and from their training sites, they marveled at the jagged outline of the Himalayas.
California National Guard soldiers pose with their Indian hosts in front of their chow hall on Ranikhet Cantonment, India on September 20, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jason Sweeney)
“Yudh Abhyas 2014 was not only a successful way to bring both the U.S. and Indian armies together and learn U.N. peacekeeping mission strategies, but also a rare opportunity for soldiers to experience Indian culture, which exuberates with color, food, music and incomparable hospitality,” said Sgt. Jasleen Khaira, an Indian-American California Army National Guard soldier who took part in the exercise.
Yudh Abhyas is an annual, bilateral exercise between U.S. Army Pacific Command and the Indian Army. The exercise provides combined training for the two armies that focuses on low-intensity, counter-insurgent actions, such as raids, civic assistance missions and quick reaction team missions. This year, the exercise took place Sept. 17-30 in the Indian state of Uttarakhand at Ranikhet Cantonment in the foothills of the Himalayas. The exercise involved a scenario in which soldiers from the U.S. and Indian armies integrated into a combined brigade tasked to conduct security and stabilization operations for a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa.
About 190 U.S. soldiers hailing from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division; the 3rd Battalion, 1st Group, U.S. Army Special Forces; and the California Army National Guard took part in the exercise.
The Indian contingent this year was from the Indian Army's 99th Mountain Brigade and the 9th Gorkha Rifles.
India has been a leading contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions for more than 50 years. Many of the Indian soldiers at Yudh Abhyas 2014 had direct experience in peacekeeping missions in such places as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Lebanon.
“At the individual level, I was the beneficiary of their rich knowledge and background in peacekeeping operations,” Cal Guard Maj. Keith Haviland said. “We all shared a genuine interest in learning about each other, our cultures and what makes each one of us tick. The soldiers of the Gorkha Regiment will forever have my deep respect."
A big part of the exercise each year involves cultural exchanges meant to help build relationships and interoperability between the two armies. This year, U.S. soldiers got the chance travel to the resort Himalayan lake city of Nainital where they spent the day sightseeing and shopping in marketplaces. They also attended social events at night where Indian soldiers performed plays, played music and demonstrated traditional combat techniques. And they were treated to Indian food.
“We came here and I think we both had preconceived notions of each other,” said California Army National Guard Lt. Col. Greg Arenas. “I expected elephants, snake charmers, dark eyes—the way India is portrayed in movies like ‘Indiana Jones.' The Indians might have thought that we were arrogant Americans—cowboys also portrayed in the movies. Over the course of two weeks, we both learned that the stereotypes were dead wrong. In fact, we have as many or more similarities than differences.”
India and the United States are the world's two largest democracies. Both countries are diverse in geography and cultures. And both are former colonies of the British Empire.
As India rises in economic and military power, its cultural, economic and military ties to the United States have been growing.
“Every time I work with the Indian Army, I am struck by the professionalism and expertise of their soldiers and officers,” Cal Guard Lt. Col. Kenneth Koop said. “I feel that the developing partnership between India and the United States will become an enduring force for peace and stability in the 21st century.”
By U.S. Army Capt. Jason Sweeney
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