The Navy’s bridge: Cultural Engagement Unit helps connect U.S., partner forces

CHINHAE South Korea (March 14, 2016) A language and regional expert of the U.S. Navy’s Cultural Engagement Unit, works with service members from the Republic of Korea navy during a combined training with U.S. forces. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Paul Coover/RELEASED)

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Paul Coover

SAN DIEGO – In a cramped, second-deck passageway inside a nondescript building aboard Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Sailors drenched in sweat are shuffling into various office spaces, dropping heavy gear with thuds before gingerly moving toward the exits. It’s late afternoon, and after a six-mile ruck run down the Silver Strand in Coronado, California, the Sailors are still only partially finished with a multi-day selection process to join a small but critical Naval command. The Navy’s Cultural Engagement Unit, for which the Sailors are applying, has slots for 51 language and regional experts, or LREs, who can assist in operating in complex overseas environments. Only an elite few applicants will make the cut.

The goal of the CEU is to increase the Navy’s operational effectiveness by more fully understanding world cultures that might be unfamiliar to Sailors born and raised in the United States. Accomplishing that ambitious goal, of course, requires LREs who can bridge gaps between cultures while working independently. That’s part of the reason the screening process is so selective. To be a native speaker of a foreign language is not enough to qualify for a CEU position, nor is being physically fit enough to keep pace with the Navy’s highest operational tempos, though LREs must possess both of those traits. LREs must also possess a holistic knowledge of a region in which the Navy operates, including the nuances that make life in that area unique — deployed LREs might need to work as translators one minute and help navigate a busy local market the next.

The three-day trial to join the CEU contains several physical fitness tests — including the six-mile ruck run — a swim qualification, and a board-conducted interview process. The trial also places a high value on maturity and education, which are assessed in-person during the screening. Such a detailed evaluation is both time- and labor-intensive for the command, but it’s not one that command leadership is willing to compromise. The Navy has to have LREs who can hit the ground running.

“If you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything,” said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Waters, the officer in charge of the CEU, “and we have to earn that trust [with a partner nation] within a six-month deployment.”

That’s a large part of the reason education is so highly valued at the command. Many LREs already had bachelor’s or even master’s degrees before joining the Navy, since pursuing higher education was often part of what brought them to the U.S. from their home countries. Once at the command, the emphasis on learning and growth continues. Time is allotted to study for Navy advancement exams, CEU leadership supports Sailors who continue to pursue advanced degrees, and the command provides numerous resources for professional military development.

Because the CEU’s main priority is to be operationally successful, the emphasis on education directly relates to the CEU mission, and pays dividends on Navy deployments. Mature, educated LREs often interact with senior-level leaders from partner nations, and the resulting relationships formed through these interactions directly benefit the U.S. and its partners.

The CEU fills its ranks a variety of ways. Potential LREs are sometimes recruited as civilians through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program; MAVNI applicants are legal residents of the United States who provide the U.S. military with language and cultural skills and gain U.S. citizenship as a result of their service. The CEU also recruits current Sailors who might have similar strengths to those of a MAVNI candidate, but who joined the Navy through a traditional enlistment option. Regardless of the enlistment path a Sailor takes, CEU leadership is simply looking for men and women who fit the command’s unique needs.

Builder 2nd Class Seong Yeol Song is one such Sailor. Song was born in Inchon, South Korea, and came to the United States initially to attend an American university. He quickly developed a love for the country, and learned he could become a citizen by enlisting in the Navy. He didn’t hesitate. And he’s never looked back.

“If I could stay here 20 years, I would,” he said of the CEU. “I love this command.”

Song’s first assignments included brief trips back to his home country to assist in bilateral training exercises. But it wasn’t until he completed a full deployment that he really understood the value of his job. He found fellow Sailors to be highly appreciative of his suggestions and input, and eager to have Song around whenever they interacted with partner forces.

“I was really motivated to support them,” Song said. He was able to work equally well as a translator and cultural guide, both during working hours and outside of them. “I was a bridge,” he said.

American-born Sailors who have deployed with LREs often speak to the value of working with peers who understand foreign culture.

“It’s about as perfect as you can get,” said one Sailor who recently deployed with an LRE. Having a uniformed service member who can work as a translator ensures everyone involved in conversations understands the U.S. mission and how to best accomplish it.

Back in Coronado, most of the applicants and current CEU staff have left for the day. The passageway between CEU spaces is mostly empty, but Lt. Cmdr. Waters is still working in his office. He’s held numerous jobs in the Navy in both the enlisted and officer ranks, but believes there is something special about the CEU. He says he is often struck by the stories of the men and women who fill the command, who grew up around the world but who all shared a dream to become U.S. citizens and serve their new country.

Motioning beyond his door, Waters talks about what it means to be part of the command. The passageway may look plain enough, but the men and women who walk it each day make it unique.

“It’s like walking the halls with the American dream,” he says. “It humbles you, and it makes you want to be a better American.”

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