Soldiers with the 82nd Civil Affairs Battalion stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., move forward through the rain on a training lane May 1 on the Army post's Red Cloud Range. (Corey Dickstein / AP)
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FORT STEWART, GA. — The Humvee quickly came to a rest as four heavily armed gunmen surrounded the U.S. soldiers’ vehicle.
A barrage of questions from the apparent leader of the armed men came next:
“Who are you?” the man asked the Humvee’s driver. “What are you doing here? Do you have a passport? How do I know you are who you say you are?”
After a short conversation the topic turned to food: “Do you have any food, any water? We need you to give us your food.”
Five minutes later the soldier arming the .50-caliber M2 machine gun in the vehicle’s turret tossed the armed man a candy bar, and the Humvee sped off into the distance.
Although the scenario Thursday morning was only training on the Red Cloud Range in the middle of Fort Stewart, it was exactly the kind of situation that could come up for the soldiers in the Humvee — with the Coastal Georgia Army post’s 82nd Civil Affairs Battalion — when they’re deployed.
The unit, activated in 2012, primarily focuses on providing humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and assistance to nations in Africa.
“We pretty much act as a liaison between the local government and the military,” said Army Spc. Drew Franklin, a civil affairs medic with the unit. “It’s a really interesting part of the Army ... You get the opportunity to do a lot of different things.”
Still, the soldiers — known as warrior-diplomats — must maintain proficiency at operating under combat conditions, said Lt. Col. Simon Gardner, the battalion commander.
“You have to treat everything that happens to you as a combat patrol. If you’re driving down the street . in Africa, you may have to go 30 miles to a gas station, and you don’t know what might come up,” he said. Everything is a combat operation . We’re civil affairs and we have different missions, but you have to get where you’re going to do that mission.”
That’s why the training mission’s organizers did not advise the soldiers what obstacles they might face Thursday.
The armed gunmen — actually military police officers with Fort Stewart’s Special Reaction Team — who set up an “illegal roadblock” were a complete surprise to the soldiers in the Humvees, said Sgt. 1st Class William Weyandt.
“I think all-in-all being held in the dark is actually good because in a real scenario you’re held in the dark anyway,” said the noncommissioned officer who serves as a civil affairs team sergeant. “The training kicks in, so the more you do it, you don’t even think about it. It just happens.”
The unit spent four days in the field, focusing their training on both combat operations — shooting, maneuvering and evacuating casualties — to more diplomatic operations such as engaging local leaders and hosting community meetings.
Repetition, whether it’s firing an M4 rifle or negotiating with tribal leaders, said Weyandt, is the key for soldiers’ successes and why such extensive training is necessary.
“That’s why we’re out here today, to make sure we’re doing it the right way so when it does happen, we’re ready,” he said. “It’s a long week, it’s tiring, but it’s worth it so that when we’re deployed we know we’re completely ready.”