Silver Flag: The Boomerang of Ideas, Culture

by Tech. Sgt. Jake M. Barreiro
Andersen Air Force Base

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- In the moments after the graduation of the first Silver Flag Training of 2018, a member of the Royal Australian Air Force calls to gather a clutch of Airmen from the United States of America, Singapore, Australia, and the Republic of Korea. The Aussie picks up a deliberately shaped wooden tool, balances two coins on it, and then tosses the coins into the air. The exercise may have ended, but for the Pacific-based Airmen taking part in Silver Flag at Andersen Air Base, Guam, the exchange of culture and ideas keeps going.

The coin-tossing they’re watching is part of a traditional Aussie gambling game: Two-up. The game is historical and conspicuous in Australia as one that’s typically outlawed. Illegal every day, except on Anzac Day, which falls on April 25, coincidentally the last day of Silver Flag.

That one can learn of and see demonstrations of a game only permitted to be played on a national day of remembrance in Australia speaks to the idea sharing that happens during a multi-national training event like Silver Flag. And just like the classrooms hosted by the 554th RED HORSE Squadron that expand from in to the outdoors, the exchange of culture and knowledge when four partner-nations join forces takes place both during and after training.

This iteration of the exercise involved the collaborative efforts of the U.S. and three pacific-based partner nations: Australia, Singapore, and South Korea. The training happened April 19-25 as part of the continuous Silver Flag training mission to test the capabilities of mission and emergency preparedness of engineers in divers situations. These included: airfield repairs, fire training, recovery after attack, bare-base bed down, and other types of emergency management.

“For this Theater Security Cooperative, we wanted to bring in some of our partner nations,” said Master Sgt. Gary Schoenhals, 554th Red Horse Squadron section chief of operations support. “We benefit by establishing relationships and learning different procedures for their operations.”

In a sense, the events of this training are standard for military civil engineers. They can be done at home station and among one’s closed group of peers. But, for Schoenhals, the 554 RHS, and the three partner-nations, there’s something exponentially better to be gained by inviting the input of regional partners.

“Really, this becomes about the exchange of ideas and trying to mesh those ideas together,” said Schoenhals. “These partnerships end up bringing out the best in us so that we can better accomplish the mission.”

It’s this endgame: mission accomplishment and the expanding of extant skills that makes TSC-Silver Flag a unique experience not just for the trainers at Andersen, but for the partner-nation Airmen as well.

“It’s great when we all come together to learn,” said Military Expert Grade 5 Kiatseng Jackson Goh, Royal Singapore Air Force. “We get the opportunity to learn from the best. We’re really excited to be able to bring this back with us to share with our comrades back home.”

An exchange of culture and ideas by bringing in partners of different national backgrounds can also mean bringing in partners with different native languages. Because communication is such a necessary part of a successful Silver Flag experience, this brings its own set of challenges. Consequently, when the matter-at-hand is restoring a damaged or dysfunctional airfield back to operational status, some things simply can’t get lost in translation.

“Communication, of course, is a big challenge,” said Shoenhals. “In C2 (command and control) it’s everything. It’s all about communicating to your Airmen what needs done and when it needs to be done.”

Ultimately though, the language barrier wasn’t a stumbling block for the team but a whet stone. It necessitated the partners find a way to work together by every means possible. Whether it be appropriating an in-house translator or tempering the old art of body language, the importance of getting the training right forced a solution to any obstacle.

“It helped us gain a deeper appreciation for the partner forces that use different languages and come from different countries,” said Goh. “It only made us better.”

It’s with this mantra of only getting better that the teams walked away from the training with positivity and a strong outlook for the future as the Silver Flag training program continues to evolve.

“For this exercise, we were able to teach some new processes that hadn’t been in previous partner nation Silver Flags,” said Shoenhals. “We’re always looking to expand on what we do and what we know, so this is something new that is spreading out to all of us, and now we’re able to spread it even further to our partner nations as well.”

A dedication to constant learning and teamwork across borders ran with the teams through Silver Flag. The post-graduation lesson on two-up, while spontaneous, wasn’t arbitrary. Earlier that morning, these same Airmen from the U.S., Singapore, and South Korea gathered before daybreak to form ranks, render salutes, and pay tribute along with their Aussie compeers to Anzac Day. The ceremony marks the observation and remembrance of Australia’s efforts and losses during World War I. That they could conduct such a ceremony, far from home, alongside fellow Airmen from three partner-nations, reinforces the thread of teamwork and borderless camaraderie formed during Silver Flag.

“The attitude we had here was ‘one man’s shop is another’s’,” said Goh. “We’re all different forces coming together here, and I think we can only improve by sharing and gaining from each other’s perspectives. This is important because sometimes when we look to ourselves, there’s only so much we can do. But when we look to everyone else and come together as a team everybody benefits.”

Naturally, after a week of laying groundwork, exchanging professional knowledge, sharing national culture, and even demonstrating the playstyle of a game played once-a-year in Australia, the teams had to pack their luggage, exchange farewells, and disperse. However, much like that other, better known, most recognizable symbol of Australia, it’ll only be a while before they return, ready to work together, again.

“Oh, we look forward to coming back,” said Goh.

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