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Hawaii-Based Troops Trade Places With Indonesian Counterparts

Ryan Finnerty
U.S. and Indonesian Army soldiers trained together in Hawaii and Indonesia over the past two weeks.

The U.S. military is increasing efforts to counter China’s influence around the Pacific by cultivating partnerships with countries in the region. Hawaii is playing a central role.

In the lush mountains of central Oahu, a group of American soldiers are preparing belts of machine gun ammunition and loading rifle magazines.
They’re preparing to assault a small village on the slopes of Mount Ka‘ala, made up of roughly a dozen or so cinderblock buildings.

But it is not the Americans who will be carrying out the attack. A different group of men, wearing different camouflage, will be taking the lead.

They are paratroopers from the Indonesian Army who call themselves Pararaiders. Forty of them have come to Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks to train with their American counterparts.

Major Kemas Nauval, originally from Sumatra, is the group’s battalion commander. During a pause in the training, he told HPR that these type of exercises are critical in developing relationships between the United States and partner nations.

“Relationship between Indonesian and American, it must be kept in a good way," Nauval said in English. “One of the ways to make the relationship become strong, is to have joint exercises like this.”

At the same time, a platoon of U.S. soldiers from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division are in Indonesia, going through similar training.

The U.S. military has been ramping up partnership exercises in recent years, but the global COVID-19 pandemic has provided a challenge.

Several soldiers from the Royal Thai Army tested positive for the virus after completing a similar exercise in Hawaii earlier this year, leading that country’s government to temporarily suspend participation in overseas military exercises.

For the U.S.-Indonesia exchange, groups received multiple COVID-19 tests and underwent quarantines upon arrival. So far, they have not reported any health issues.

The troop exchange is the first of its kind between the U.S. and Indonesia.The strategically-located island nation is the world’s 3rd largest democracy by population, and in recent years has been deepening its relationship with the U.S.

The Indonesian troops attended the U.S. Army’s Oahu-based jungle warfare school, where they drilled on patroling and survival skills for a jungle environment. The Indonesians themselves are experienced jungle operators, but were eager to share tactics with the Americans.

The village attack served as the culminating event of the two-week exercise. In preparation for the mock-assault, U.S. troops shared techniques that could help their Indonesian counterparts successfully operate in an urban environment.

Sgt. Mitchell Brandon showed one group how to operate a miniature hand-held drone they could use to search buildings from the outside, without having to enter. Instructions were given first in English, and then translated into Bahasa Indonesia.

"The least amount of people I can send in, the better right? I’d rather lose this than one of my soldiers,” Brandon explained. He then demonstrated how the baseball-sized drone, known as a Black Hornet, could be flown through a door or window to inspect an unsecure structure.

A few yards away, Army medic Private First Class Arvin Mettao was showing another group of Indonesians how to provide combat medical treatment to a wounded comrade.

“Now the rule with tourniquets is, no matter where the injury is, you will still apply the tourniquet high and tight,” Mettao explained while demonstrating how to apply the small ring of black fabric and Velcro that can be a lifesaver on the battlefield.

On a hill above the village, a third squad of Pararaiders practices launching smoke-dispensing shells from a mortar tube, which can be used to help obscure their advance to a target. Teams work in both Engilsh and Bhasa.

Sgt. First Class Wilson Rodriguez of Newark, New Jersey, is overseeing today’s training. Before coming to Hawaii, he deployed to Iraq with one of the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades, units that specialize in training foreign forces.

That experience taught him how to work with partners who speak a language other than English. He says interpreters are normally critical to success, but many of the Indonesian troops speak some English.

“We’re working through that challenge but a lot of them speak pretty good English and are able to translate for us, so it hasn’t been that big of an issue,” said Rodriguez.

When preparations are complete, it’s time to put all the separate training to use. A squad of Indonesian troops approaches the target building, moving through dense vegetation in the fading daylight.

Crouched in the tall grass and jungled vegetation at the edge of a clearing, one of the men lobs a smoke grenade toward their objective.  The squad charges through a billowing cloud of white smoke, under covering fire provided by an American machine gunner.

With automatic gunfire echoing off the surrounding structures, five troopers stack up outside the entrance of a two-story building. They burst through the entrance, and proceed to clear it room by room, calling out enemy combatants with whom they exchange rifle fire.

American mentors follow closely behind, making notes for the end-of-exercise critique.

The team communicates in a mix of English and Bhasa. While that might seem to increase the chaos inherent with such an operation, Indonesian commander Major Nauval says both sides can understand each other just fine.

“Because we have a universal soldier language, so we can understand each other,” Nauval says. “But only soldiers can understand,” he adds with a laugh.

While the sharing of technical skills is a major benefit of these exercises, cultural exchange has also become an important benefit as well.

U.S. Army Second Lt. Ryan Ashburn of Vaisaila, California, leads the American platoon conducting training with the Indonesian Pararaiders and says this experience will help both armies work together in the future.

“This whole exchange has just been learning about their tactics and also them learning about our tactics and learning about their culture and them learning about their culture,” Ashburn reflected.

Partnership exercises are increasingly a pillar of the U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific region -- sending a signal to China that the U.S. is building a coalition of regional partners to supplement longtime allies like Australia and Japan.

The cultural exchange mentioned by Lt. Ashburn has become a major component. 

U.S. instructors periodically paused training for the soldiers from majority-Muslim Indonesia to kneel and pray toward Mecca.

And before going home, the Indonesian troops were treated to an authentic American Thanksgiving dinner.

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