US blazes a trail with its «chainsaw diplomacy»

Take note – story published 6 years ago

"Teamwork makes a dream work!" comes the cry from the basketball court. 


Under normal circumstances, you might be tempted to think such a phrase a little bit cheesy, but as it is being barked out in the best military fashion by a US marine who looks like a chunk that has fallen off Mount Rushmore, complete with Stars and Stripes tattoo on his bulging bicep, there's the first reason not to crack wise.

The second reason is even better: teamwork really does look like it is making a dream work. In this case the team consists of the US military, the US embassy, volunteers from the Latvian Agricultural University and the teachers and pupils of Spāre school, an establishment 90 kilometers north west of Riga for children with a range of physical and mental disabilities.

As the words are spoken, a line of marines, paratroopers and kids is advancing inch by inch across the court on funny little red plastic skates. They hold hands, making sure no-one gets left behind, and it's hard to decide who's enjoying the task more, the kids or the grunts.

The preceding squad has already advanced to a climbing frame where they are picking their way through a web of strings as if any one of them might be booby trapped. But this is no militaristic exercise - laughter just about manages to drown out the sound of Abba, which booms from speakers the kids placed at the school windows to keep their visitors entertained.

The military personnel were made to earn their playtime earlier in the day when they helped the Latvian forestry students (who drove the considerable distance from Jelgava completely on their own initiative) thin out an area of overgrown forest opposite the school.

Previously inaccessible and unsafe, it's already possible to see how beautiful the trail through the short, densely-packed pine trees will be. The smell of resin and needles is the sort of thing for which they pay top dollar at Jurmala hotels.

In overall charge of the operation in more ways than one is Nils Students of the US Embassy who has swapped his suit and desk for dungarees and chainsaw for the day. He tells LSM the reason behind the US' so-called "chainsaw diplomacy".

Nils Students on 'Chainsaw diplomacy'
00:00 / 05:46

Head teacher of Spāre school, Rita Bukovska, says the visitors from the US were greeted with great excitement by the children.

"They've been looking forward to today for at least a week. When they heard the minibuses arriving you should have seen them all run to the window," she smiles.

"It's been a great day. They did good work clearing the forest in the first half of the day, where we plan to build a nature trail. But it's also nice for the kids to see these big, strong guys to show the importance of physical education and health, too.

"Another important aspect is getting away from the blackboard and developing communication skills. As you can see, even though they have no shared language, they seem to be communicating on the sports field just fine."

For the troops, the day at Spāre is a good opportunity to get away from military bases and see a bit of the country in which they find themselves posted, say Gunnery Sergeant Jared Pennie and Captain Joshua Hansen, watching from the sidelines.

Sgt Pennie & Cpt Hansen, US Army
00:00 / 02:52

And while part of the intention is obviously to generate good publicity for the US Army's enhanced forward presence in Europe, it would be as cynical to say that is all there is to it as it would be to scoff at "Teamwork makes a dream work." 

US soldiers on Latvia
00:00 / 01:29

Away from the main event, one tall US soldier is taking the opportunity to wander up one of the tree alleys that lead from Spāre school, a former manor house, with the long, regular stride typical of a military man. As he passes a pond, a small boy, barely reaching his waist, falls in beside him and starts copying his stride.

They carry on like that for a little while: two people of completely different sizes, cultures, backgrounds and languages, just hanging out together. Then the soldier turns to the little boy and asks: "Say, you wanna go play on the swings? Yeah, let's go to the swings."




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