by DAVID AXE
The “Medflag ’10” medical training exercise opened with a sense of optimism. On September 6, hundreds of Congolese and U.S. Army doctors and medics gathered in Kinshasa at an overgrown base belonging to the Congolese Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC) for the opening ceremony of the two-week event. A Congolese honor guard marched in precise columns as a band played Congolese tunes and the U.S. national anthem.
In a packed auditorium, dignitaries laid out a vision of growing U.S.-Congolese cooperation that would benefit both countries. Colonel Gilbert Kabanda, the FARDC surgeon general, praised the Congolese army’s three emergency medical teams, which had been busy in recent months responding to earthquakes and river ferry accidents. “The exercise launching today has the main objective of strengthening them,” Kabanda said of the teams. Samuel Laeuchli, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa, said the Americans in turn might learn about tropical diseases from their FARDC counterparts.
But it didn’t take long for reality to intrude on the officials’ vision. In following days, the Americans discovered that greater cooperation with the Congolese would require overcoming significant obstacles, including language and technological barriers.
On September 9, the army base that had hosted the opening ceremony had transformed into a schoolhouse. In a row of classrooms adjacent to rudimentary barracks surrounded by weeds, American medics taught courses on emergency medical techniques to classes of several dozen FARDC students each. The Americans would describe a technique — say, the application of a tourniquet — then demonstrate the technique on an American soldier playing the role of an injured person. Translators stood by, repeating everything in French then in the local language of Lingali.
The need for two degrees of translation forced the Americans to slow down. “The time factor is extended greatly due to the interpretation and the second interpretation,” Sergeant Stuart Hammer, a medic from the 814th Medical Company, a unit of the North Dakota National Guard, told Offiziere.ch. The English-French-Lingali translation also allowed mistakes to creep into the instruction. “They want to talk so much and help so much,” 1st Lieutenant Coty Sicble said of her soldiers, “but some things get lost in translation.”
Then there was the technological gap between the Americans and Congolese. The entire 130,000-strong FARDC has a budget of little more than $100 million in a country where a dollar buys a couple loaves of bread. The Congolese government cannot afford to provide even basic equipment to its soldiers, and the medics are no exception. That limits how effectively the Americans can train the Congolese. “Although we have all these Americanized supplies and we’re telling them, ‘This is what you should use, these bandages and our tourniquet,’ they’re going to have to come up with their own supplies,” Sicble said.
For all the headaches associated with training the Congolese, it’s better than not training them. For one, even the most basic exposure to the highly professional U.S. Army is going to have some influence. What’s more, if America doesn’t engage the Congolese, some other country might: the Chinese, perhaps, or the Iranians.
It was still possible that in coming days the Americans might pick up some lessons from the FARDC in treating tropical diseases. But in the first week of Medflag ’10, it was all the Americans could do just to impart basic lessons to their impoverished, French- and Lingali-speaking compatriots. While the obstacles were myriad, there was one potential pitfall that never materialized. The U.S. Army is accustomed to dealing with poorly-motivated military trainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Congolese were different. “They’re very eager to learn,” Sicble said.