Cadets hone diplomatic skills in Croatia © July 19, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

Eugene Sevi and Norwich cadets Kevin Wheeler, Veronica Stewart and Kyle Shortsleeve pose with their Croatian hosts at a World War II memorial in an unnamed town during their May 2008 trip.

photo courtesy of Kevin Wheeler Prof. Eugene Sevi [Back row, from left] and Norwich cadets Kevin Wheeler, Veronica Stewart and Kyle Shortsleeve pose with their Croatian hosts at a World War II memorial in an unnamed town during their May 2008 trip.

From the windows of a modern hotel in the Croatian city of Vukovar, three Norwich University cadets saw a stark reminder of war’s cost and the lengths people will go to gain their freedom.

What had been a shopping mall before the country’s armed struggle for independence between 1991 and 1995 was now a pile of rubble. Buildings still bore battle damage from bullets and shrapnel, although larger holes had been filled in. They also saw warning signs for minefields and monuments over mass graves.

“They fought for their independence less than 20 years ago,” said Kevin Wheeler, Class of 2009. “The scars are still there.”

I’m the only American many of those Croatians have ever met. It felt good to know I was representing Norwich and representing our military.

~ Kevin Wheeler, Class of 2009

Wheeler and fellow students Veronica Stewart ’09 and Kyle Shortsleeve ’09, cadets at the oldest private military college in the United States, had the opportunity to tour Croatia for two weeks in May. The trio met with members of the country’s armed forces and cadets from the Balkan nation’s two military academies on a program designed to foster military diplomacy.

“It was a lot of fun to talk with the Croatian cadets about their political views, about how they felt about joining the European Union and NATO,” said Stewart, a member of the Air Force ROTC at Norwich, a small, Northfield, Vt., university that serves both military and traditional students. “It was good to hear different perspectives on training and politics.”

Croatia is a European Union candidate and aspiring NATO member.

Stewart and Wheeler both said the cadets and military members also questioned them about techniques the U.S. uses to train its officers.

Both said they became more keenly aware of their roles as representatives for their country as their trip progressed.

“I’m the only American many of those Croatians have ever met,” said Wheeler. “It felt good to know I was representing Norwich and representing our military.”

Their experience in Croatia also gave them an added appreciation for their future responsibilities as military officers.

“The trip made me think a lot more about coalitions, because in the future the U.S. military is going to be dealing with a lot of other countries,” said Stewart. “We have a lot to learn from each other. It made me realize that I have a big responsibility to learn cultural sensitivity and how to work with people from other countries.”

The cadet experience at the Croatian military academy is akin to that of ROTC cadets in the United States, said Wheeler, who is enrolled in the Marine Corps ROTC program. Students in Norwich’s Corps of Cadets, or in U.S. schools run by the military such as West Point or Annapolis, are more deeply immersed in military culture.

“The Croatian cadets have no responsibility within their school other than going to classes and getting commissioned as officers,” said Wheeler. “They wear their uniforms in the morning, then take them off and attend classes at local civilian universities in the afternoon.”

Off-time was at a premium during their fortnight in the Balkans. In addition to presenting and attending briefings at the Croatian Military Academy in Zagreb (the country’s capital) and at the Croatian Naval Academy in Dubrovnik, the trio attended training sessions with the country’s special forces. There was also time to meet with civilians and see the progress Croatians have made rebuilding their country. The cadets toured vineyards, ancient walled cities like Dubrovnik, and even nature preserves.

“Croatia is the most beautiful place I’ve been to, where my breath was taken away by the scenery,” said Wheeler.

A crucial element of the experience was time spent with Master Sgt. Michael Fanuko, the chief non-commissioned officer at the Croatian Military Academy and a veteran of the war for independence.

“He joined their military just as the war started,” said Wheeler. “He spoke with incredible passion about what he went through, such as the frustration of being unable to reach his brothers-in-arms when Vukovar was under attack.”

The Croatian military is anxious to understand how the United States armed forces train their officers, said Eugene Sevi, a professor of engineering technology who accompanied the students.

“The biggest advantage to the Croatians was that they got to see how we do things,” said Sevi, a retired brigadier general in the Air National Guard. “But more importantly, the young people got to know our cadets, meet with them on off-time and learn a lot more about American cadets and how they go about their lives.”

Their trip was funded by the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation, a Falls Church, Va., organization that seeks to encourage international diplomacy through cultural exchange programs for students studying to become military officers.

“It helped put things into perspective as to what I want to do in my career,” said Wheeler. “Serving in the military isn’t this macho thing; it’s something more than that. That becomes obvious when you see just how proud (the Croatians) are to be serving in their country’s military.”