About the Author: Eythan Sontag is a member of the Department of State’s Civilian Response Corps-Active component.
The crack of bullets and explosions pierce the air. Tires squeal and skid as vehicles corner tightly at high speed around curves and dirt roads. Global Positioning System (GPS) units beep and handheld radios crackle as field missions are planned and carried out.
These are just a few of the sounds that characterize the experience for students participating in one of the Department of State’s most atypical training curriculums: Security for Non-Traditional Operating Environments (SNOE). The course is designed specifically for the growing cadre of U.S. Government civilians – members of the Civilian Response Corps – who are prepared to deploy on a moment’s notice to conflict-affected countries throughout the world. Students gain critical knowledge and field skills that will help them more effectively and safely function in unconventional and austere environments, often beyond the reach of U.S. civilian or military support structures.
SNOE, developed jointly between the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS), is entirely unlike the average training most Foreign or Civil Service officers receive. The focus is on “hard skills” that can be utilized in high-threat and remote circumstances – ranging from the jungles of Africa to the mountains of Afghanistan. Topics include everything needed for a hostile or semi-permissive environment including, surveillance detection, trauma first-aid, hostage survival, personal safety practices, weapons familiarization, improvised explosive device awareness, mission planning, land navigation and high-threat on- and off-road driving techniques. The course adopts an “experiential” approach that emphasizes hands-on application of the skills. While some of the training is conducted in classrooms, the majority of it is in the great outdoors – aimed at replicating to the maximum degree possible the stresses and conditions that corps members might experience in the field.
At the outset of the course, students are issued a range of field equipment, from first-aid kits, to body armor to personal survival packs to GPS units. SNOE instructors cover the use and maintenance of this gear, and students have ample opportunity to put the items into practice. Few, if any, of the State Department’s training classes actually encourage participants to start fires (with a flint and knife), build improvised shelters (using trash bags, survival gear or material from the local environment) or to signal for helicopter evacuation (employing signaling panels or mirrors). The kit, while often essential in carrying out typical Civilian Response Corps missions, is only as helpful as the ability to utilize it correctly; the SNOE course ensures that its students gain a basic familiarity and proficiency with the equipment so that it can be effectively used when the time and circumstances require it.
The first iteration of SNOE ran from mid-June to early July 2009, and was held at various training venues in Virginia and West Virginia. Instructors included a mix of contractors with extensive military, law enforcement or other specialized experience; highly trained medical personnel; and Diplomatic Security driving, weapons, security and explosives experts. The Civilian Response Corps students represented not only S/CRS, but also other components of the Department of State and other agencies, including the Department of Justice’s Marshal Service and the Department of Health and Human Services. Participants’ diverse reconstruction and stabilization backgrounds – in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, the Balkans, Asia and Latin America – added practical perspectives and context to the course.
SNOE culminates in a field training exercise that synthesizes many of the topics covered in the previous three weeks of training. Throughout the course, instructors feed students information about a notional conflict-impacted country where they will eventually “deploy.” The vast range space of U.S. Marine Corps Base Quantico serves as the venue for this notional country, and role players – acting as displaced persons, tribal leaders, militants and other characters – set the stage for SNOE participants to practice mission planning, navigation, surveillance detection, driving and a host of other hard skills.
Participants in the pilot course departed Quantico physically and mentally fatigued, but also fulfilled by the new competencies they had gained and the knowledge that they will be better equipped for future missions.
Additional information about the course is available in the training section of the S/CRS website. Note that this course is an expanded version of OT-610 Foreign Affairs Counter Threat (FACT) and also fulfills all FACT course requirements.