LOHATLA, South Africa – As soon as the 101st Airborne Division platoon entered a camp full of people who were forced to flee their homes, soldiers were peppered with complaints of rebels stealing their food, belongings and even their women.
Leading the platoon, 1st Lt. Zachary Lewis scanned the area as he spoke to the camp’s leaders as part of a scenario for Shared Accord, a two-week annual exercise which took place in July 2017 and aimed at enhancing the peacekeeping capabilities of U.S. and South African forces.
Once his platoon from the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment fanned out around the camp, a nearby rebel shouted a war cry, sparking dozens of aggressive rebels to charge the camp’s concertina-wired perimeter.
Brandishing machetes and other weapons, the rebels heaved bricks over the wire as Soldiers rushed to stop the group from invading the camp.
“As I was talking to the leaders, the rebels returned with machetes and all sorts of things,” said Lewis, 24, of Mendota, Illinois, after the training event. “We were trying to be the mediator and not let anything escalate so you don’t have a war happen between the two sides.”
Lewis yelled to his squad leaders to take charge and control the belligerent crowd. A line of U.S. and South African soldiers quickly set up, pitting the soldiers in between the rebels and the internally displaced people inside the camp.
One of the squad leaders, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Harrell, was on the line with his Soldiers. While the line bent, the Soldiers made sure it didn’t break as the group of rebels tried to penetrate it.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” he said of the training, which is part of the force-on-force portion of Shared Accord. “The squad did great. They wouldn’t back down from any of them waving machetes in their face.”
Harrell got pulled into an argument with one of the rebels, who was playing a bodyguard for the group’s chief and had an AK-47 rifle. The 36-year-old squad leader yanked the rifle — which was a replica to make the training more realistic — from the man to make sure no shots would be fired.
“If you’re here for peace, then give me the gun,” explained Harrell, of Clayton, North Carolina. “You have no need for it and you’ll get it back once your chief comes back and you’re ready to go.”
Things settled down after the Soldiers were able to mediate a meeting between the chief and the camp’s leaders, so they could come to an agreement.
The tone of the belligerent crowd then turned more cheerful as they marched away from the camp, ending the training event.
With 15 years of service in the Army, Harrell said the event reminded him of similar incidents he saw while deployed. In 2003, he was part of the Iraq invasion with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and helped secure Kirkuk Air Base in the north.
During that chaotic time with a power vacuum in the government, Harrell and other troops were ordered to help maintain peace.
“We’ve seen these types of situations where the city kind of erupts because [residents are] angry about something,” he said. “Our task is to find out what happened and help keep them safe and come to an agreement.”
While the Iraq invasion is now history, the seasoned soldier is confident that other challenging incidents, which could turn violent in an instant, are on the horizon for his squad.
“I keep trying to get it in their head that we’re not in South Africa right now. These aren’t MILES [multiple integrated laser engagement systems] that we’re wearing. This is real life,” he said. “Keep your head on a swivel [because] who knows, in six months we might be going to Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq.”
With just one year in the Army, Pvt. 2 Robert Nielsen was assigned to the platoon in February. Shared Accord, which has over 230 Soldiers from the division participating, is his first major exercise and it hasn’t let him down yet.
“This is probably the most realistic training I’ve ever done,” said Nielsen, 28, of Enumclaw, Washington.
The staged riot was an eye-opener for Nielsen, who mans an M249 squad automatic weapon for the platoon that typically trains for urban warfare. While important, that type of training can sometimes become repetitive and lose its element of surprise, he said.
“When you get something new thrown at you that you’re not used to, it kind of gets you prepared for the unexpected,” he said.
As a young platoon leader, Lewis wants Nielsen and other fresh soldiers better prepared for what they may come across in the future. The resources put into Tuesday’s training event, which also included handmade structures, helped do just that.
“If someone threw a brick at you right now, you’d get pretty stressed out,” he said. “They’ll [now] be able to make better decisions after acting this out in such a realistic manner.”
“The main effort of the exercise will be strengthening of multi-national cohesion between South Africa and the United States of America,” said Major General M Mbiza.
“Such exercises are not only important, they are a critical prerequisite for adequate force preparation and their long-term benefits are incalculable.”