Even when they come from coasts more than 5,000 miles apart, there's sometimes little clear distinction between the lives of soldiers who reside and train in separate countries.
The sentiment seemed to thrive as teams from the 11th Chemical Company, 110th Chem. Battalion (Technical Escort), out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and the 24th Korean Chemical Special Forces Battalion, from South Korea, navigated together through the cold, dark hallways of an unfinished and abandoned nuclear power plant.
"You can read a book and go online and try to research a culture, but to actually relate in cross-level experiences, you realize that, despite the differences in culture, some of the human aspects don't change," said Capt. Michael Padden, commander of the 11th Chem. Co.
The group had a clear mission: locate, sample and remove potentially fatal chemical agents from a room infantry troops discovered while clearing the facility. The scenario culminated a week of joint training Dec. 10 to 14 for the two units, both branded by their respective forces as technical escort battalions.
The battalions, made up of multiple 15-man, specially trained teams, support commanders in warzones and civil authorities when not in combat, providing careful and delicate site exploitation techniques to mitigate the harm of chemicals and munitions.
The teams, referred to as Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield explosives Response Teams, secure areas or facilities after report of a live agent, or a combination of live agents and weaponry, and remove the threat, simultaneously taking samples of any chemicals present.
U.S. teams also include three Explosives Ordnance Disposal Soldiers, whose job it is to ensure any booby traps or bombs that might have been strategically placed in the area are safely alleviated without injuries to the group.
During their exercise finale, which took place at Satsop Nuclear Power Plant and concluded three days of training on U.S. chemical equipment, safety precautions, tactics and procedures, Korean teams faced the threat of mustard gas in a nearly pitch black, vacant, makeshift lab. The agent was mimicked by simulants the Army uses for training purposes that mirror the chemical properties and molecular structure of mustard gas.
Sgt. 1st Class Jason Matheney, a team leader whose job it is to take chemical samples, observed a team of Koreans moving about in the darkness, headlamps secured above their gas masks to help them see. Matheney watched the two soldiers' every move, ensuring they checked every box from their previous days' classes.
U.S. chemical teams, Matheney said, are considered to be the world's best-trained operators of their kind.
"This process that we set up is catered toward the threat they would face in Korea," he said, sitting in a corner of the tiny room. "I'm not sure if they have the assets over in South Korea to be able to get the training we're provided here in the states."
"They're worried about the threat coming from North Korea, and the munitions they might find, so they're not really worried about the chemistry part of it," he said, citing some of the differences between how the two countries operate.
But despite their differences, Matheney only provided understanding as his Korean counterparts expressed concern that they were taking too long. Then, the senior sergeant transformed into a mentor.
"Hey, sometimes it takes a long time," he said, reassuring the Korean soldiers, donned in U.S. chemical suits and masks. "If it takes us three hours, it takes us three hours. I just want to make sure you guys get exactly what you need."
"You've hit everything and you've found everything so far," he continued. "Job well done."
"Thank you," one of the soldiers replied in a quiet, humbled voice, his wide smile still clear from behind the obscurity of his mask and despite the low light.
"Our mission is geared a little bit toward a different objective than theirs is, but just the components and the basics themselves will allow them to actually accomplish their mission," Matheney said.
Helping soldiers of another nation improve their skills through in-depth training is certainly an opportunity. But Matheney considers it more of an honor.
"It's definitely a privilege to be able to be put in this situation," he said. "We're lucky, because we're given the best training in the world, and to be able to pay that forward in any way that we can, I mean, it's just a great thing."
"It is really great to have experience with a good facility and the good training with them (U.S.)," said Sgt. 1st Class Jang Won Park, a Korean sample team leader. "You can learn and adapt from their previous experience, and the United States forces have actual experience in warzones, in Iraq and Afghanistan."
But there's much more, Park said, to engagements with another country than simply the training benefit.
"One of the best things of working with a foreign country is making new friends," Park said.
And Matheney's company, he said, made that its first order of business.
"Those relationships were formed from the beginning, so it was easy, once we started training, for those guys to understand who we are, our positions on the team, and we just bonded from the beginning," he said, explaining that they talked culture and lifestyles while sharing the food they eat.
"Whatever nervousness was there was totally gone by hour one, so these guys and us have really become one over the last few days," he added.
After their exercise, which lasted close to four hours, the soldiers relished their downtime, trying on each other's combat helmets, taking photos together and bringing laughter to one another.
Article by Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord, 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment