At 48, Col. Don Summit is old enough to remember the fear and anxiety Americans felt about the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
That era and the way Russia is still viewed by many in this country will be in the back of Summit's mind as he leads a group of about 60 soldiers from the Utah National Guard to meet up with Russian soldiers and U.S. troops from other states later this month for combined training exercises in Grafenwohr, Germany.
Lt. Col. Joe Grimmett, 51, is calling it the "Torgau exercise," named after the town in Germany where East met West when U.S. and Russian troops gathered in April 1945 to celebrate a "common" victory over the Nazis in World War II.
Grimmett, a full-time Guardsman, said the idea behind joint training will be to "come together, share ideas and work toward a common good" and, more importantly, to build relationships with soldiers from a country that he remembers from his youth in Idaho as the "big evil in the world." He recalled the 1960s, when missile silos were at the ready in his home state and there were empty grocery store shelves when the threat of a Russian nuclear attack loomed over the United States. The Cold War would not end until 1991.
As Summit put it, they'll be training with people from a country where at least the government and its military have been more commonly referred to as "the bad guys." Goals for the 19-day trip are many, but developing even a general sense of understanding about each other will be key, according to Summit, an engineer for a meat-packing plant in his civilian life.
"What you understand is something you no longer have to fear," he said of learning more about how Russian troops operate. "What you know, you feel like you can gain from.
"It all boils down to relationships between people and to be able to come to a solution peacefully rather than through conflict. Understanding is essential to that."
For insight on why the two sides find it necessary to train in unison, Summit points to Iraq. There the U.S. military and its foreign allies, British troops in particular, have had to work together, not just in combat, but in helping each other rebuild Iraq. Differences in the way each country's military carries out a combined mission surface time and again.
"We don't go to war by ourselves anymore," Grimmett said. He recalled how in Iraq he worked with military members from Korea, Australia and Romania.
Summit uses the scenario of a bridge being blown up. He said the question becomes whether to focus on restoring travel more for the sake of commerce or for military operations. Should it be a footbridge or one that could sustain vehicles? Should the "locals" be involved in deciding what to build? How big should it be or to what "standards" should it be built?
"I think we'll have different responses as we set priorities," Summit said.
Guardsmen from other states have trained alongside Russian troops, but this trip will be the first of its kind for Utah soldiers. The reason for the trip is somewhat common, as the State Department identifies throughout the year different countries that share with the United States an interest in a particular geographic location.
Summit said that while leaders from Russia and the United States are often at odds over issues like oil or defense systems, the two countries could someday find a need to work in tandem in an area of the world where they share a common interest.
But the training in preparation for that day won't be all work and no play.
Summit said Utah and Russian soldiers will be going out to eat, playing volleyball, exercising together and talking about families. It's part of "demystifying" the people U.S. troops will be training with, he added, hopefully toward an understanding that they have more similarities than differences."If we can come away with a good feeling," Grimmett said, "then how we attack the battle is insignificant."
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