Soldiers from the U.S. and Chinese armies conducted disaster response drills at Camp Rilea last week, forming bonds in case of a major flood somewhere on the Pacific rim.
It marked the first time the annual exercise — one of the few opportunities for collaboration between the two militaries — took place in Oregon.
Both soldiers and civilians took part in academic discussions, table-top exercises and field training in Portland and Camp Rilea from Monday through Sunday. Organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey also participated.
The event has evolved since the initial exercise 20 years ago. It centered on a theoretical scenario, but drills and discussions were based on real-life data from a previous major flood in Peru.
“I learn something new every time that I participate,” said People’s Liberation Army Maj. Gen. Zhang Jian through a translator at a Sunday press conference. “This round ... is more practical.”
That practicality may play a key role in an inevitable major disaster in the Pacific region, U.S. Army Pacific Commanding General Robert B. Brown said.
“You don’t want to form relationships during a crisis,” Brown said. “That’s why this is so important that we form relationships so we can save lives when there’s a disaster in the future working together.”
In the field, soldiers ran through drills and evaluated their performances.
One scenario forced soldiers to conduct search and rescue missions in a “rubble pile” — a simulated building collapse that included a collection of storage containers, concrete and crushed cars. They worked together to stabilize parts of the structures and mark spots that previous groups had already surveyed. One tactical difference stood out.
“The American side is more flexible. The ability of the individual is stronger,” PLA Lt. Mo Sihua said. “On our side, everyone knows their role very clearly.”
Another scenario involved soldiers treating medical patients in a dangerous area. After stabilizing the patients, the soldiers needed to quickly carry them on stretchers and place them on a zip line attached to a hastily constructed rope bridge. The patients would then glide above a 25-foot-wide stream to safety.
American soldiers learned new methods of tying knots when building the bridge. Chinese soldiers, meanwhile, learned that they need to pack equipment — such as bandages and medical tubes — that vary in size in order to be prepared for many types of medical situations at a disaster site.
Both exercises involved a lot of creativity to overcome the language barrier, especially given the acronyms and jargon soldiers use.
Staff Sgt. Virgil Newberry, for instance, struggled once to ask his Chinese counterpart to play dead during a scenario. He employed multiple body gestures to convey the message.
“I wish I could’ve watched myself,” Newberry said with a laugh.
Another soldier in a different drill placed his hand near his neck area to ask for a collar to stabilize a patient.
“Once you overcome the language barriers, it’s the basic common challenges of coming into a new group,” Maj. Valente Perry said. “It bridges that gap in communication. It builds hope that there can be collaboration in the future.”
Throughout the week, soldiers from both armies lived together in barracks. They also attended a Portland Trailblazers game Saturday night.
“Sometimes if you don’t work together, there can be almost a mystery about the other place,” Brown said. “You read about it, you see it, but it’s so far away. You don’t know the people. There could be a misunderstanding of different individuals. You take away that mystery. The more they participate, the more they’ll understand each other, and the chances they’ll see each other in a real disaster and be able to work more efficiently.”
Considering how rare the opportunity was for the soldiers on both sides, they expressed excitement about the chance to work with one another.
“I immediately said, ‘Let’s do it,’” said Newberry, who is stationed at Rilea, about when he first learned of the training a few months ago. “It’s not who you’d think we’d work with like Britain, France or other countries.”
Diplomatic tensions have persisted between the two countries for decades, but the exchange took place at a time of particular uncertainty. President Donald Trump has chided China for its trade policies as well as its relationship with North Korea.
Brown said the exchange has not garnered any political backlash, adding that the countries have a common will to collaborate in their disaster response efforts.
“You can have areas of differences and still find many things in common where you can work together,” Brown said. “When you find things in common, it enables you to talk about your differences easier. If you don’t find things in common, you just focus on differences and it’s not effective for anybody.”
Jian indicated that Trump’s recent visit to China was a positive sign for the future of the exchange.
“He reached important consensus with President Xi Jinping about further developing our relationship in a healthy and stable manner,” Jian said. “This presidential consensus has provided important strategic guidance of the future development of our bilateral relations. This consensus definitely provided solid political foundation for our military-to-military relationship development.”
Jian added that the exchange itself will have benefits beyond preparing for a disaster.
“It is a concrete action taken to push forward our practical cooperation,” Jian said. “(It) will not only be able to facilitate our military-to-military relationship, but will also provide a very good opportunity for the two militaries to interact positively in the Asian-Pacific region so that we can work together to ensure regional peace and stability.”
‘Time is critical’
The exchange, as it has done recently in even-numbered years, will take place in China next year. Two years, ago Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state hosted the event.
Brown hopes to see a spike in the number of soldiers participating and that the exercises can become more complex, he said. The units that participated were chosen based on the high likelihood that they would be selected to respond to a disaster.
“In a disaster, time is critical. It’s almost impossible to get there too quickly,” Brown said. “We would be way ahead in a coordination element to save a lot of lives because of the efforts here.”
Who took part
Participants in the exercise included U.S. Army Pacific, the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, the Oregon National Guard, the U.S. Military Academy, the 351st Civil Affairs Command, the 13th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, the 571st Sapper Company, the U.S Coast Guard Sector Columbia River, the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Pacific Disaster Center, an applied research center managed by the University of Hawaii.