AYEME, Gabon — After a week in the classroom, the American soldiers and their Central African partners are ready to put into practice what they've learned as part of the largest, most complex exercise U.S. Army Africa has ever conducted on the African continent.
On Tuesday, the soldiers kicked off the field training exercise of Central Accord 2016. During the three-day FTX, soldiers from Gabon, Chad, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo will be paired with squads of American infantrymen from the 3rd Infantry Division to practice and conduct United Nations peacekeeping operations.
Central Accord also will include multinational airborne operations featuring the 82nd Airborne Division and French and Gabonese paratroopers, as well as a command post exercise in Libreville, Gabon's capital.
In all, about 1,000 military personnel from 14 nations will participate in this annual event.
The exercise is part of U.S. Africa Command's Accord exercise series and is a key part of the Army's efforts to build partnerships across the continent.
A U.S soldier assigned to 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division exits a bus at the French Jungle Warfare School near Yemen, Gabon, June 6.
Photo Credit: Yvette Zabala-Garriga/Army
The work the Army is doing in Africa is critical, as it provides training and support to armies across a region facing threats such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab.
"Africa matters," Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams told Army Times in late May, shortly before relinquishing command of U.S. Army Africa to Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington. "We've learned a lot, and we continue to learn. The enemy knows no boundaries, so it's important to have good partners on the African continent."
For Central Accord, infantrymen from 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment have trained alongside soldiers from Gabon, Chad, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo since the beginning of June.
The African soldiers have been enthusiastic about working with the Americans, said Lt. Col. Brian Ducote, commander of 3rd Battalion.
"Their level of interest and desire to learn has been exceptional," he said. "It's very rewarding to see people who want to learn more about our collective profession. They were like sponges."
The African soldiers have asked for training on everything from basic map reading and basic rifle marksmanship to rule of law and ethics training, Ducote said.
The soldiers had to work through some challenges, however, as they battled language barriers — most of the African troops speak French — and learned how each other's army operates. Each army also has different radios and levels of encryption, Ducote said.
The challenges are "tough, but nothing insurmountable," he said. "We're developing common tactics and interoperability that will only pave the way for the future if we have to operate together."
To kick-start the training, leaders made sure the soldiers from each country exercised together, ate together, trained together and even exchanged patches.
"Soldiers gravitate to each other,"" said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Davenport, the senior enlisted soldier for 3rd Battalion. "Soldiers are soldiers. They're going to talk to each other."
Many of 3rd Battalion's soldiers in Gabon had never deployed, Davenport said.
"They're doing exactly what soldiers do," he said. "It's a good experience."
Most of the soldiers in the field belong to 3rd Battalion's B Company, led by Capt. Zachary Schaeffer.
"We've been learning a lot of skills we don't normally practice, for instance peacekeeping," he said. "It's always a challenge to work with other nations, with different tactic and techniques, and there's also different languages, but our soldiers are making good progress."
For his soldiers, whether they had never deployed before or had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, working with African partners has been a beneficial and unique experience, Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer said he was surprised to learn how similar the African armies are to the U.S. Army.
"We came into this exercise not too sure of the level of skill of our African partners, but we've been pleasantly surprised at how skilled they are and how their tactics and doctrine are similar to ours," he said.
Sgt. Jesse Harlan, a team leader in B Company, and his soldiers have enjoyed their experience in Gabon, he said.
"It's something new for all these guys, it's new for me," Harlan said. "Meeting other soldiers [doing] PT with them, is great. These guys keep up real well. They're just great soldiers."