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Four students in fatigues sit in a trailer classroom on the campus of the Defense Information School at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County. They've brushed books on Twitter and social media to the side. None of this is unusual. The U.S. military has trained its public affairs officers here for years. But now, it's teaching the same skills to other militaries' spokespeople and broadcasters. These students hail from Turkey, Moldova and the Philippines.
Army Col. Jeremy Martin, the commandant, describes the international course as a "combat multiplier."
The U.S. Army plans to shed 80,000 troops in the coming years. Federal budget cuts could shrink the force even further. As the U.S. military slims down, it is relying more and more on its allies abroad to help keep the peace.
Those smaller operations must be able to "communicate with a certain audience in whatever region of the world we may be operating in," Martin says. "When we build those relationships, it makes our operations more effective."
The six-week course combines trips around Washington with writing drills, mock interviews and classroom lectures. The school has offered it three times so far. Students are promising junior or mid-level service members, nominated by their embassies. A recent lesson focused on how to make a wary public trust the military.
Turkish Army Lt. Col. Ilker Temiz now recognizes his communication style could be more effective.
"Normally when we make an explanation to public, we give the facts," says Temiz, who works as a public information officer in NATO's Istanbul headquarters. "We generally forget our message: We're here to support you and to help you."
Course instructor Stefo Lehmann teaches the Pentagon's policy of "maximum disclosure, minimum delay." That can throw off international students, who might be expecting to learn techniques for dodging media inquiries, Lehmann says.
"They often times come here with the perception that this is a propaganda school or there's no way we're going to provide all the information that we do," he says. "But even if the information is embarrassing to your commander or your command, you still have a legal obligation to provide it."
The idea of cooperating with the media is a foreign concept to some students.
"We always see the media in our country as a threat to our organization," says Filipino Army Captain Jeffex Molina, who just switched to a civil affairs job after eight years in the infantry. "But now, the way the media is introduced in our class and our visits to Washington, I see that media is a good partner of the military."
The capstone exercise involves watching Pentagon Press Secretary George Little prepare for and then give a press conference. But school officials want students to leave with good feelings about the United States in general, not just the media. Bonds built here could translate into better working relations with the U.S. military.
To that end, the school arranges for visits to Annapolis and Capitol Hill.
"People here are very kind," says Temiz. But with each field trip, he has noticed a downside to life in the Washington region.
"Roads are very crowded, and when you want to take a taxi, it is too expensive because the places are very far from each other," he says. "Transportation is a problem."
That's an easy lesson to learn in Washington.
[Music: "Around the World" by Daft Punk from Homework]
Photos: Fort Meade Training