Army medic Sgt. Leslie Peterson hesitated to answer when a medic from the Chinese military asked a basic question about how Peterson would care for a soldier badly wounded in battle.
“Can I answer that?” Peterson asked a higher-ranking U.S. soldier.
Peterson was given a blessing to respond. Then she continued her demonstration that won applause from a couple dozen visitors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Friday.
She was a hit with this contingent from China’s People’s Liberation Army. But her hesitation underscored the newness of an unusual military exchange at JBLM that’s connecting soldiers from two armies usually characterized as rivals.
The exchange this week brought about 80 soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army to a military base in the continental U.S. for the first time. It marked a progression in an 11-year sequence of formal exchanges between the two armies focused on preparing for natural disasters.
Leaders from both countries view disaster preparation as an area where they can cooperate and build trust, possibly reducing the likelihood of an armed conflict in East Asia.
“Any time you continue to have partnership, you continue to communicate, you continue to train together, that’s what contributes to de-escalation,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commander JBLM’s I Corps.
Maj. Gen. Zhang Jian, the highest-ranking Chinese officer participating in the exchange, gave a similar perspective.
“This exercise will help the two sides … so we can jointly maintain peace and stability,” he said.
This week’s exchange asked senior-ranking soldiers from both countries to play out how they might respond to a serious earthquake on a fictional Pacific island. Ground-level soldiers participated in exercises where they demonstrated search-and-rescue techniques.
In the past, the U.S. and China have responded separately to extreme natural disasters, such as the earthquake in Nepal earlier this year.
With practice, “the U.S. and the (People’s Republic of China) can enhance collaboration so we can bring a more timely response in a humanitarian disaster,” said Maj. Gen. Edward Dorman, commander of the Army’s Hawaii-based 8th Theater Sustainment Command.
Out in the field, ground-level soldiers from both countries appeared to enjoy themselves. They showed off tools they use to extract people from damaged buildings and shared methods of treating the injured.
“We should get one of these,” a search-and-rescue airman from the Washington Air National Guard proclaimed as he watched a Chinese soldier wield a saw that made cutting rebar look easy.
In the medics’ tent, Peterson, 31, said her exchange with Chinese soldiers was one of the most rewarding experiences in her 12-year Army career. She talked to them about how she cared for injured civilians in the Iraq War, and how she respected cultural differences with the people she helped.
“It’s their lives that are on your mind when you treat the patients,” she said.
One of her JBLM teammates, Spc. William Soyster, 24, said the exchange left him feeling hopeful.
“With all the craziness in the world, it’s nice to be working with the Chinese army,” Soyster said. “It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together. We’re all human.”