Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Deminers get top marks from their US trainers

Deminers get top marks from their US trainers

Deminers get top marks from their US trainers

M AJOR Russ H. Berkoff and some of the American Special Forces demining instructors go jogging every morning. During the fifth week of training they ran into what appeared to be a motorcycle robbery in progress near Street 94.

"Eight or nine rounds were fired. We found ourselves ducking bullets. A guard came out and fired off a burst of M-16 rounds, but the two guys on the motor bike got away okay, and we continued running."

Otherwise, American Special Forces soldiers say they have found Cambodia less difficult than their last assignment - cyclone relief in Bangladesh.

American Green Berets (Special Forces), explosive ordnance disposal [EOD] experts, and heavy equipment engineers arrived in Phnom Penh on July 12. They are due to leave Cambodia mid to late-September. The American demining instructors conduct their training at the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Chomchau camp just south of the capital.

Officers say they are avoiding traveling outside of the Phnom Penh area but denied it was due to security reasons. "We are training five and a half days a week, that keeps us pretty busy," one said.

Phillip Ferraro, demining coordinator at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh said: "It is recognized by the Cambodian government and [the US] that this deployment is extremely important. This is the beginning of US government military assistance to the newly elected government."

"The mission is a humanitarian aid mission," said David E. Miller, the Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy.

"It is non-lethal humanitarian assistance. In addition, the US government has given $1 million in medical supplies to stock clinics in Phnom Penh hospitals," he added.

Officers in the training team forecast the possibility of a long-term military aid relationship with the Cambodian government.

That relationship however is described by observers in Phnom Penh as a conditional one, reflecting official US reservations about military aid and the difficulties of addressing the problems in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).

"The next training mission will reinforce and expand on the training already given. But in order to expand the program, the government of Cambodia will have to demonstrate a commitment to military reform and restructuring," Ferraro said.

Major Russ H. Berkoff, the Special Forces (SF) officer that leads the 45-member US Army training group, said that around 120 Cambodian soldiers are being trained.

He described the deployment as a "potential watershed for the Cambodian Army. For us it is a foot in the door. We will be able to see what is do-able and what is not."

One of the US officers said: "This is a rare opportunity for us. We are looking at a two to three year program here. Whether the program continues depends on the Royal Army.

"If the de-mining platoon is kept together and used in the way it has been trained, that will be positive. But it cannot operate alone, it will need medical, logistics and administrative support."

Berkoff said forty-five soldiers are being trained in de-mining. The American soldiers are organizing a mine detection platoon and will lay the ground-work for a Cambodian de-mining school by identifying a school cadre.

US officers say that the training will follow the model established by the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC). "We need a common standard and common organization for de-miners in Cambodia, the CMAC model provides that."

Many of the trainers are members of the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets), an elite parachute unit created during the Kennedy administration. Their involvement in Vietnam, and more recently in American military operations in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq, along with movies like The Green Beret have made them symbolic in many minds of elite professionalism, but also US interventionism.

Today SF has two major missions: foreign internal development (FID) and direct action. Officers say that the units spend about half of their time training for each mission. The attempt to rescue hostages in Iran during the Carter administration in the US was an example of direct action. This mission is classified as FID.

The SF Team Leader, a US Army Captain said: "Classes are going well. The RCAF has provided all the support that we have requested.

"We are using 40 Schieble [Austrian made] mine detectors the government purchased at our request. The students are enthusiastic, they are studying hard and doing well on their tests."

One of the US demining instructors said: "The students have been very attentive. They ask what if, situational questions.

"It shows that they are thinking. They take copious notes, and have a spirit for attention to detail. The estimated grade point average so far is 90 percent."

Major Berkoff said: "It is so important to integrate discipline into the training. De-mining requires precision and concentration." With the exception of Berkoff, the soldiers interviewed for this article declined to be identified.

All of the demining students are officers, one is a Major General, the SF Team Sergeant said.

In the US Army, the vast majority of personnel in a de-mining platoon are enlisted men, Ferraro said.

The SF Team Sergeant said: "We have tried to teach them how the American Army does business. Morning formations, complete uniforms, and morning reports are required. But it is not just us, the Major General has them snapping and popping."

Berkoff said that CMAC does not go into contested areas to de-mine.

"Demining platoons in the RCAF will give them the capability to de-mine in areas where security is a problem," he said.

Personnel at the CMAC are being trained in medical treatment of blast injuries and soldiers are being trained to produce educational material to enhance mine awareness among the population.

Aside from the demining platoon, forty-five drivers and mechanics are being taught to operate and maintain the $1 million in road construction equipment given to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces by the US government.

Rick N. Myskey, organizer and coordinator of this part of the training, said: "The [vehicle training] will end with a 26-day road construction excercise on Route 26 [near Odong, just north of the capital]."

Though US military officers served with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodian (UNTAC) as military observers through November 1993, no direct US military aid has been given to a Phnom Penh government since 1975.

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