Diverse CentCom troops share a common thread


Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 10:49 p.m.
TAMPA - It could have been a holiday gathering at any workplace, with folks balancing overloaded paper plates of goodies from the buffet table and making happy small talk about their jobs and families.
But the lunchtime party last month - featuring salmon, salty lamb and other traditional Christmas dishes from Norway - was anything but typical. The mingling celebrants wore the military uniforms of the nations around the globe that are backing the United States in the war against terrorism.
Dozens gathered in the unassuming doublewide trailer at MacDill Air Force Base usually reserved for somber daily briefings at U.S. Central Command, which is coordinating the war in Afghanistan. The usual discussion here is military strategy. For this hour, at least, it was more likely to be about the pleasant afterburn provided by Linie Aquavit, a traditional Norwegian liquor being sampled in paper cups.
The soldiers, mostly officers, represent their countries here, acting as liaisons between the their own military leadership and the U.S. braintrust led by the CentCom commander, Gen. Tommy Franks.
They live and work among people from countries with vastly different cultures and customs in an unprecedented international effort. They sit down to eat with other soldiers who come from places the average American might have trouble finding on a map.
Hailing from 43 nations, the CentCom coalition troops number about 300. And with the few extra pounds that might come with adopting American eating habits, the soldiers say they are gaining a military and cultural experience unlike anything they've had before.
"You're exposed to different cultures and traditions, and you get an appreciation for the world by working together," says Army Brig. Gen. Roar Sundseth, the senior national representative from Norway who hosted the Christmas gathering.
"Because there're no secrets. There's a diverse coalition in the respect in that we have our own national agenda. But at the same time we share common goals in the global war on terrorism, and that's what unites us."
This coalition has few rivals in military history. University of Florida historian Michael Gannon said the closest comparison is probably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was formed in 1949 to secure western Europe against an attack from the Soviet Union. It began with a dozen nations and ultimately won the Cold War, he said.
"If they have representation of 43 countries in Tampa, they've trumped NATO," Gannon said. "And that is unique."
On MacDill Air Force Base, the coalition representatives occupy rows of beige trailers like the ones used for portable classrooms at public schools. The national flags flapping above each trailer are the only distinguishing features. A chain-link fence surrounds the so-called "Centcom village," and stern armed guards watch over it.
The lines on the pavement show that the space used to be a parking lot. That was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, after which Central Command - since 1983 the headquarters for military operations in the Middle East - became one of the focal points of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Delegations range from just a few soldiers to 50 or so in the two largest groups, from England and Canada. Most are posted to CentCom for between two and six months, although some stay longer. Some live on base; others take up residence in apartments scattered throughout the Tampa Bay area.
All the Canadians, for example, live in apartments in a single St. Petersburg complex. Hailing from a place where winter comes early and stays late, they don't mind that the war against terror is being directed from a land of palm trees and gentle winter breezes.
"Home is full of snow. Here we don't have to shovel rain," said Keith Agar, a Canadian Air Force major who arrived in September. "To walk around with your sleeves rolled up is a pleasant experience." Some take full advantage of their situation, getting out to sample the local cuisine and nightlife. Capt. Raad Abu Amirh, 29, one of two soldiers from Jordan serving at CentCom, even got himself a girlfriend. They met at a restaurant. The amiable, talkative solider said getting along in Tampa is easy.
"There are a lot of nice people here," he said. "They're helpful. They like us."
There are other perks, too. In December, coalition members were herded into an airplane hangar for a private screening of "Analyze That," starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal. The actors, along with Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, showed up on base to schmooze with Franks and sign autographs for the troops.
In private, some soldiers gravitate to their own. In November, about 30 Muslim members from a dozen different countries crowded into two south Tampa apartments to break their daylong fast together in one of the last days of the Ramadan holy month.
"The U.S. provided us with an opportunity to meet so many friends," said Pakistani Army Brig. Gen. Tahir Malik, who hosted the gathering.
"It was a very tragic event, 9-11, but if it had not have happened my countrymen would not be here meeting so many wonderful people. I will be visiting some countries when this is all over."
At work, the soldiers generally attend a lot of meetings and then must keep their military leaders back home apprised of CentCom plans operations. Everyone speaks English, so communication barriers are few, the soldiers say.
"Military minds work together easier," said Khurrem Khalil, an Air Force major from Pakistan. "It's better than the politicians, I would say."
Lt. Col. Guiseppe Prestigiacomo, chief of air operation plans for the Italian delegation, marveled at the cooperation among the members. If there was a surprise, it was the willingness of non-European nations to plunge into the war.
"To me that was strange because I didn't expect this kind of help," he said. "I saw that it was easy for them."

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