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At a Jersey City mosque hands-on religious training aims to keep West Point cadets armed for peace
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FAITH OVER FIREPOWER
Hands-on religious training aims to keep West Point cadets armed for peace

Thursday, April 05, 2007
BY WAYNE WOOLLEY
Star-Ledger Staff

The lights in a Jersey City mosque flickered at dawn and more than a dozen West Point cadets stirred in sleeping bags scattered across the prayer room.

As Imam Hussein Wahdan began the melodious call to prayer in Arabic, bearded men filed past the cadets, kneeled and then bowed to the floor to begin their morning worship.

The cadets -- who normally wake up to the sounds of freshmen barking out the time remaining until the troop formation -- had traveled 60 miles from their leafy campus. They might as well have been a world away.

"The timing of the wake-up was about right," said Cadet Brian Hughes, a senior who will be commanding a tank platoon, perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan, within a few months. "Everything that happened after that was unlike anything I'd ever experienced."

That was the point. Hughes and his classmates came to Jersey City for three days last week to be immersed in the religious and cultural life of one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America, the highlight of a semester-long course called "Winning the Peace."

The cadets met imams and observed prayers at mosques, a Hindu temple and an African-American church. They met leaders and young people from the city's Indian, Pakistani and Egyptian Coptic Christian communities. They heard from Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, who talked to them about the challenges of governing a city where 50 languages are spoken.

The aim of the course and field trip is to give future Army lieutenants insight into cultures and religions that may be unfamiliar to them. It is part of a broad recognition by the U.S. military that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that troops in the field must win the trust of the local people to have any hope of defeating an enemy hiding among them.

"While our technological superiority and professionalism make us the greatest Army the world has ever known, this does not necessarily translate into success in stability, security, transition, reconstruction or peace operations," the course syllabus reads. "This course aims to fill that gap ..."

The course, which is an elective, was first offered in 2003. Although the launch of Winning the Peace coincided with the beginning of the Iraq war, the idea came from a West Point instructor who had just returned from a humanitarian exercise in Haiti and saw a vast culture gap between the soldiers and the people they were trying to help.

Col. Cindy Jebb, the deputy head of West Point's department of social sciences, said the Army is trying to send a message to its future officers that they will lead troops into many kinds of battles. All West Point cadets receive commissions as Army 2nd lieutenants upon graduation.

"In the 1990s, we as an Army went through a kind of schizophrenia. Are we war fighters? Or are we peacekeepers?" Jebb said. "It's clear right now that we're both."

Although the Iraq war was not the genesis for the course, it's a major focus of the coursework now, said Maj. Stephanie Ahern, the instructor.

All of the 19 students in Ahern's class are required to use the Internet to stay in contact with recent graduates now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're called e-mentors.

"They need to hear whether what they're learning rings true in the field," said Ahern, who graduated from West Point in 1995 and has served as an engineering officer in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. "They learn that even as junior officers in Iraq, they can go from passing out chem lights to kids, to figuring out who blew up an IED to leading a city council meeting all in a few hours."

The cadets said learning the material to prepare them for humanitarian peace-keeping operations in addition to readying for combat has been a Herculean effort.

"It's kind of like drinking from a fire hose," said Peter Zink, a future military intelligence officer from Ventura, Calif.

Nearly all of the cadets who came to Jersey City are seniors, the first class to commit to attending West Point after the U.S.-led invasion began.

That fact is not lost on Zack Frisbie, a cadet from Houston who will be commissioned as an infantry officer in May.

"Nobody wants to go to war," Frisbie said. "But we kind of feel like the baseball team that's been practicing for four years and hasn't gotten to play a game. We're ready to start our jobs."

He said the experience in Jersey City was a crucial final step.

Last Friday morning, Frisbie and his fellow cadets watched children with cartoon-character backpacks sing their morning prayers at the Islamic Center.

"This is my first time in a mosque," Frisbie said. "I wish every cadet could spend time in a mosque to find out what it's like, instead of learning in theater."

A mosque is an unfamiliar place to most West Point cadets. Fewer than 1 percent of the roughly 4,000 students identified their religion as Muslim, according to a university spokeswoman.

Bridging that gap was one of the major focuses of the field trip. The cadets slept two nights in the third-floor prayer room at the Islamic Center, a cavernous building that was once a Masonic Temple.

They listened to a detailed presentation about Islam with an emphasis on the faith's similarities to Christianity and Judaism.

"What you see in a mosque is the same thing you seen in a church or a temple. Good human beings who believe what they believe," said Ahmed Shedeed, the president of the Islamic Center. "When you really think about it, our differences in our beliefs are but small ones here and there."

But the visit at the Islamic Center also exposed the cadets to some of the criticism they will encounter if they are assigned to the Middle East. During a question-and-answer session with the cadets, Imam Mohamed Alhayek, a native of Jordan, told them he believed the United States should leave Iraq and had destabilized the region by supporting regimes that don't allow people to establish governments based on Islam.

Shedeed later told the cadets that Alhayek should not have injected his political beliefs into a discussion about Islam.

Zink, the cadet from California, didn't mind at all.

"It was good to hear that perspective," said Zink, who will be assigned to a Special Operations aviation unit in Georgia. "Hopefully it helps us. Odds are very high we're all going to deploy somewhere."

That fact hit Cadet Chris Beeler of Albany, N.Y., when he awoke to the sounds of the call to prayer during his visit to Jersey City.

"Looking at when we came in, we understood we were going to war," Beeler said. "But waking up this morning, it made me realize this is a culture I'm going to really need to know -- and my soldiers are going to need to know."

Wayne Woolley may be reached at wwoolley@starledger.com or (973) 392-1559.

Posted on: 2007/4/5 13:22
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