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French troops take to the field

By Sgt. Peter Fitzgerald
First published in
SFOR Informer#119, August 8, 2001

In the hills above the coal town of Gacko in Multinational Division Southeast (MND-SE), French troops mobilised for an extensive three-day field exercise that began July 31. Named "Puebla," the exercise tested their operational readiness in a number of contingencies, specifically in a refugee movement situation.

Gacko - with the blades still whirling, troops emerged from the CH-53 helicopter and immediately began setting up a tactical headquarters. Within minutes, communications were established and contact was made with units already on the ground. From their hilltop location they were able to co-ordinate with patrol and support elements spread over a 100-square-kilometre area. Puebla was underway.
"This is good training for everybody," said Lt. Col. Eric Bucquet, chief of operations for the French Battle Group. "Everybody has to take part."
Convoys from Mostar rolled into the Gacko area during the first day and by early evening a transit camp was set up on a nearby hilltop. Moroccan and Spanish troops also joined in, providing security, escort and reconnaissance support.
"It's very interesting work," said Sgt. Antonio Jimenez, platoon sergeant of the Spanish Guarda Civil unit that was on hand to support the exercise.
1st Lt. Mohamed Elias Ben Moussa, Moroccan platoon leader, added that his troops worked well with the other soldiers.
"This is not the first time we've worked together. It's a good relationship," he said.
The exercise, while requiring the co-ordination of several entities, relied heavily on the battle group's support element.
"A lot of elements are involved - infantry, reconnaissance - but the focus is on support. They settle the camp, organise vehicles, doctors, medicine, food," Bucquet said.
The camp was set up with a processing station, medical facilities, showers and latrines, food and shelter tents - all with the capability of handling up to 100 persons on a transitory basis.
"This is the main exercise of the support element," said Capt. Nicolas Bodet, logistical company commander.
Bodet added that the set up went so smoothly because the soldiers were used to working with the materials and knew just what to do.
"This is the work they do at home," he said.
Refugees, played by the troops, began arriving during the early morning of the second day. They went through security searches, in-processing, medical screenings, and then were provided food and temporary shelter. Different scenarios - from medical emergencies to security threats - were played out all through the exercise to test the skills of the soldiers.
Among the important lessons learned was how to deal with refugees.
"We must remind them (the troops) that they are not prisoners; they are refugees. They must be talked to and have the situation explained to them," said Capt. Thierry Genries, exercise co-ordinator.
A mock "press" team was also there to conduct interviews during the exercise. The journalists, also played by SFOR troops, spoke only in English to soldiers of all ranks, providing another challenge.
"One of the aims of the exercise is to train all soldiers, including officers and warrant officers," said 1st Lt. Romuald Pierson, who played one of the journalists.
Throughout the rest of the exercise the troops were confronted with different situations. In one scenario a security team had to deal with protesters trying to stop a convoy. Other troops had to confront border guards attempting to interfere with the escort of refugees.
While the exercise tested the troops in a refugee movement situation, it was essentially an operational readiness exercise. In a real-world situation, SFOR would not have the primary role.
"It's not our job. It's the job of the country or an NGO (non-governmental organisation). We can help by securing the area and providing escorts, but we are normally not involved," Bucquet said.
Still, the exercise served its purpose by helping to ensure the readiness of the French Battle Group.
"They learn how to manage a difficult situation, and they learn how to be ready at any time," Bucquet said.

Related link:
Nations of SFOR: France
Training and Exercises