Extensive travel through Europe has given me an opportunity to enjoy the rich history and culture of some of the oldest civilizations on earth. The experiences I've had and friendships I've made have broadened my horizons beyond all my expectations. Therefore, I am especially saddened by the way many of my fellow Americans treat the people who have given me such joy.
I have noticed a growing anti-European attitude among U.S. service members. This stems from the initial shock of living in an environment entirely unlike anything they have experienced before. From the language to meal times, everything may be completely different. Too often, these basic differences produce an attitude of disrespect—and sometimes hostility—in the unprepared. Ignorance lies in our belief that because the United States is the world's greatest power, all other countries should mirror it. Culturally speaking, American society is quite young, compared to Europe's. I have seen shipmates abroad who are unable to comprehend this "new" society around them. They fight each difference; and in doing so, create animosity among the people they encounter. This, in turn, generates negative attitudes that deepen the hole into which they are falling. Not only does this ruin their own overseas experience, but it also spoils future relations by presenting an unfriendly image of all Americans to our hosts. The result is, at best, an indifferent attitude toward us—and at worst, an undeserved hostility toward the United States.
This culture shock needs to be treated, if we wish to maintain civil relations with the European community—particularly in and around bases where U.S. service members are stationed. This can be accomplished with minimal effort. Units beginning Mediterranean deployments already receive briefings on local customs upon arriving overseas, but more is needed. At present, pre-deployment briefings start several months in advance and include such topics as vehicle concerns, finances, wills, and powers of attorney. We need only to add one or two more sessions dealing specifically with customs and habits, plus some tips for experiencing a new culture. In addition, workshops on train systems, car rentals, and accommodations would be most beneficial to those who want to travel while stationed or deployed overseas. An excellent source for lecturers would be service members who recently have completed overseas deployments and tours. Such people have current information and, most likely, will enjoy sharing their experiences with others.
Unfortunately, actions like these will not solve all our problems. Some shipmates are determined not to enjoy deployments no matter what the amount of preparation—and such people will receive no benefit from training. For the majority, however, a few well-placed ideas will encourage independent study, and blossom into a genuine interest in foreign places. With more people showing interest in other cultures, word will spread quickly that a six-month deployment overseas can be fun—not a six-month jail sentence. Some basic "Overseasmanship" training will go a long way to repairing previous damage and foster a healthier relationship with our friends overseas. This can only be of benefit to all Americans abroad, along with the U.S. Navy.
Petty Officer Hilstrom served in the USS L. Mendel Rivers (SSN-686) and is stationed Military Entrance and Processing Station, Memphis, Tennessee.