NORTHFIELD -- U.S. Army Sgt. First Class James Karr served three tours in Iraq and a fourth as a civilian, but he came to Vermont's Norwich University to learn how to understand the cultural differences between Americans and Iraqis and how understanding those differences can further U.S. interests.
He knew firsthand how cultural differences could be misunderstood. When he first arrived in Iraq in 2003, for example, the habit of Iraqi men walking arm-in-arm and kissing when greeting each other made him uncomfortable.
"To me that was very odd. That's not something we do here in America," Karr said. "By the end of my fourth tour I got to know some people there quite well and I was perfectly comfortable with it."
So to learn how to make the most out of his understanding of those differences, he enrolled last year in the Norwich program and he did most of his studies online.
Special Operations Command
The program built upon the things he learned in Iraq and integrated it with studies of sociology, anthropology, geography, cultural awareness, regional politics, and international conflict. Karr is a member of the military's Special Operations Command, the same group that sends commandos into volatile situations with guns blazing. But another component of the command is to find ways to win the war of ideas without force partly by understanding the different cultures around the world and how understanding those cultural differences can advance U.S. interests without firing a shot.
"If we can make more culturally astute decisions earlier on, obviously the intent is to minimize the risk of conflict," Karr said.
And that's what brought Karr to Norwich, where he completed a bachelor's degree, majoring in strategic studies defense analysis focusing on information operations and cultural understanding and how it applies to military operations.
He was one of seven members of Norwich's first class to graduate from the program in June, with more than 100 additional students enrolled. The program is open exclusively to service members assigned to or retired from the U.S. Special Operations Command and its subordinate commands.
"The general idea is to develop an attitude of openness to experiences prior to judgment and action so recognizing when you show up in a new environment you are not the expert. It's going to take time to develop expertise," said Aimee Vieira, an assistant professor of sociology, who has developed programs for the military. Each branch of the military has its own special operations forces and they are all set up to understand the environment in which they work.
"Our special operations operators are set up to have a special expertise in a certain region so they have more than the language and cultural background than what the average soldier would bring because they're most likely to have those person-to-person level interactions, whether it's with local government leaders, local military leaders or the local civilian population," said Public Affairs Sgt. Major Brian Thomas at the military's Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla. "It drives the whole Special Forces and Special Operations community."
Karr, 35, originally from Eagle, Neb., and from a family with a long-line of military service, joined the Army when he was 20. Naturally curious, he was eventually assigned to the Special Operations Command. He did tours in 2003, 2004 and 2005 performing what he called stability operations.
"Here's this average guy from the mid-western United States and the next think I know I'm in Baghdad and it's completely foreign to me," Karr said. "Why is it that if I see something, and I don't understand it, and it looks odd to me, why is it that people are completely normal with it?"
Karr did two-thirds of the course work for his bachelor's degree while serving oversees. He enrolled in Norwich's distance learning program in the spring of last year.
Now that Karr has his bachelor's degree he's planning to switch uniforms and transfer to the Navy where he'll be commissioned as an ensign. He's also planning to enter an advanced degree program at Norwich.
He's focusing his studies on Africa and he will help the Navy develop programs to help other service members understand the area.
"Any opportunity the United States can have to better understand where we're operating... if we can understand how people live there and what their perception of normal is we can make better decisions," Karr said.