Army Special Forces troops, commonly known by their Green Berets moniker, are famous for their reconnaissance and guerrilla-style combat deep behind enemy lines.
But in northern Thailand, Green Berets from the Utah Army National Guard's 19th Special Forces Group are also gaining a reputation for their medical expertise and their soccer prowess while conducting a three-week joint training exercise with the Royal Thai Army and Marines.Participants in the exercise are expected to return to Utah Tuesday.
"They're teaching us how to fight in the jungle. We're showing them some military skills where we have resources," said Lt. Col. Don Spradling, commander of the 19th Special Forces Group.
Lt. Col. Pajum Tamprateep, the Thai Army's director in the joint exercise, said his soldiers have the heart to fight, "but not always the best training or equipment. It is important to supplement strong heart with a strong body."
The exercise is taking place near Thailand's second largest city, Chiang Mai, located near Thailand's northern border with Burma, where guerrillas loyal to opium warlord Khun Sa are trying to establish a stronghold.
"Some of the units we're dealing with have units that are engaged right now" in Thailand's northern regions, Spradling said.
In addition to training Spradling characterized as "prime," the commander said he found the reception the Americans received among Thai villagers remarkable. "It was a lesson in humility and gave an appreciation for what we've got here."
Three medical teams from the Special Forces group set up clinics and treated an estimated 500 people in five days last week. The clinics brought modern medicine to people who have possibly never seen a doctor before and gave medics useful field training. Guard linguists and four Thailand-based missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped the medics and Thais communicate.
"We see diseases here we only read about in medical school," said Maj. Ron Larsen, a St. George surgeon. "I went through a local hospital and they had 10 beds filled with patients with diseases I had only heard about - typhoid, typhus, stuff we only read about in medical books."
Lt. Col. Lyle Jackson, a veterinarian from Park City, vaccinated entire villages' dogs and cats against rabies. "I'd never seen a case of rabies until I came here four years ago," he said. "While we might have one rabies death a year in the U.S., Thailand, with a fraction of the (U.S.) population, will have 800."
Capt. Mark Drown, Salt Lake City, is head coach of the all-Army soccer team. As a goodwill gesture, Drown took soccer balls to Thailand and fashioned PVC pipe into soccer goals. "Soccer is their national sport, but many village schools can't afford balls or goals." He organized a soccer match between the Guard members and the Thai children or military at the end of each medical clinic operation.
"These people are our allies. As we've operated with them in the last three years, and certainly as we operate with them in the future, I think we're going to be developing the kind of relationships that are not only good from a combat perspective but I think we're making a real impact on the communities there," Spradling said.