A Central-Asian education in diplomacy © Nov. 2, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of students climbing the Singing Dune

submitted photo The Norwich group climbing the singing dune in Kazakhstan.

Summer 2007 saw five Norwich cadets 10 time zones, three flights, and 16 flying hours due east of Vermont in Kazakhstan for an education in diplomacy, disaster relief organization, and the delicate negotiation of interoperability.

Prof. Eugene Sevi, former dean of Norwich’s David Crawford School of Engineering and a retired brigadier general for the Vermont Air Guard, acted as a faculty escort to what he calls some of “the best and the brightest” Norwich students who set out to the Central Asian nation this summer. Senior ROTC cadets David Corl, Brad Fisher, Sybil Taunton, Randy Young and midshipman Sean Lippert, have all contracted to accept commissions in the U. S. armed forces in May 2008. This past May, however, the group left for what Corl, a sports medicine/health science major, described as an “incredible and life-changing” experience.

Their 15-day journey, sponsored by United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) and supported by The Olmstead Foundation, had two objectives. The first, lasting for five days in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital city and cultural center, was in line with The Olmstead Foundation’s goal of fostering exposure and sensitivity to foreign cultures in military leaders. The second objective was to complete Exercise Regional Cooperation 2007, a simulation designed to strengthen international ties in the event of disaster.

The cadets were in good hands. Sevi has spent much of his forty-year career in the Vermont National Guard working on humanitarian and nation-building initiatives. Including students in his work is also not new to him. In the late ’90s, Sevi met with Norwich graduates in Macedonia when he was charged with providing food, water and shelter to more than 60,000 Albanian refugees who poured into Macedonia from Kosovo during Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s reign. Sevi understands the value of global citizenship and has been sharing his knowledge with students for years, this year being no exception.

My greater understanding of a foreign country, geopolitics, and working with military personnel from many different countries are priceless lessons that I will be able to carry into the military as an officer.

~ David Corl ’08

“We hope the students come away with an appreciation of the importance of diplomacy and international relations before they start a military career,” Sevi said. This summer the experience took place in Kazakhstan, next year Sevi said he’s hoping it will be Croatia.

Young, a senior management major, described the highlights of touring the southern region of Kazakhstan in the first leg of their trip as truly remarkable.

“Driving through the desert was nothing short of an experience,” Young said. “When we started out, we expected the terrain to be like a Middle Eastern desert. We later realized that it was more like being in Arizona or New Mexico. One of the most intriguing sites we visited was petroglyphs created during the Bronze Age. As well as seeing cave paintings, we saw various animals and natural landmarks. One of these was dubbed the singing dune. Upon climbing to the top of this dune, we ran down the side causing a land slide. The vibration of all the sand caused the dune to sing. We all found this very intriguing.”

Sevi said visits such as that taken to the singing dune is just as vital to students’ educational experience as any other activity they would participate in while travelling in foreign lands.

“Taking the time to eat local food, visit historical and cultural sites and see the landscape will often foster more connection and goodwill with local inhabitants than providing support and expertise,” said Sevi, who has seen this phenomenon many times.

With this important education behind them, the group traveled further north in the country to Astana, an important stop on The Silk Road throughout history. Located closer to the Central Asian steppes and with Russia bordering to the north, Astana was still cold in June. But Sevi and students settled comfortably into The Radisson and prepared for Exercise Regional Cooperation 2007, held in the hotel facilities.

Organized by USCENTCOM and hosted by Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense and the Kazakhstan Ministry of Emergency Situations, Exercise Regional Cooperation 2007 brought together participants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and the United States with representatives from the US Joint Forces, Arizona and Massachusetts National Guards, Norwich University and the United Nations.

Photo of Prof. Eugene Sevi.

photo by Jay Ericson Prof. Eugene Sevi, the Norwich engineering professor who escorted students to Kazakhstan in the summer of 2007.

Upon arrival, the cadets were hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Astana for a two-hour meeting with Deputy Chief of Mission Kevin C. Milas, who briefed them on the social, political and economic circumstances of the country. Two days later, when Exercise Regional Cooperation 2007 officially began, each cadet worked with foreign officers and a team of interpreters in one “cell” of the operation; logistics, intelligence, media, current and future operations and executive.

Brad Fisher, an Air Force ROTC cadet and senior majoring in computer security and information assurance, described the exercise in his written report, noting, “The overt objective of this exercise was to create a mass-casualty disaster scenario in Kazakhstan. America used Regional Cooperation as a reason to bring the many countries of the former Soviet Republic together and foster an environment of cooperation and friendship—to facilitate the creation of friendships in peace so that lives can be saved and alliances hold strong during times of hardship and war.”

The theme of building relationships, or “interoperability,” between participating countries surfaced many times in the reports made by the cadet participants and those created by the leadership, USCENTCOM, The Olmstead Foundation and Sevi.

“Usually in the armed forces, you have to serve for ten years or more before they will allow you to do diplomacy work,” Sevi said. “It is very important work.”

Corl agreed with Sevi’s assessment, stating in his report that while this was his first opportunity to travel overseas, the experience and what it holds for his future has been invaluable.

“The experiences I have had recently are unlike anything I have ever experienced before,” Corl wrote. “My greater understanding of a foreign country, geopolitics, and working with military personnel from many different countries are priceless lessons that I will be able to carry into the military as an officer.”