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Naval Academy Midshipmen Visit Georgia

Posted on: November 19, 2013 08:00 EST by Midshipman 2nd Class Katherine Macvarish

Midshipman 2nd Class Katherine Macvarish is one of six midshipmen studying abroad this semester as part of the Russian Language Study Abroad Program. Here, she describes a nine-day trip the mids took to the country of Georgia.

The rain poured down outside as our group huddled damply around the table. Several of us had already made the treacherous excursion down the slick wooded path to the outhouse. Other than that, no one dared to leave the room.

As the minutes passed and nothing occurred, the tension in the room gradually ebbed and we began to relax and joke around. Suddenly, we heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps on the deck outside. We stared in terror at the door as it creaked open, and the ghastly entrance light showed that all our fears had come true. A rumble of thunder rolled through the room as our smiling landlady stepped inside, carrying a fifth tray laden with freshly baked food.

I can think of no time in my life when I have been more continuously gorged than my nine days in Georgia. As part of the Russian Language Study Abroad Program, six midshipmen including myself travelled through the country to get first-hand perspectives on the 2008 war with Russia.

Though we would come to learn more of the complex layers of Georgia culture, at first we were overwhelmed by the most obvious aspect: Georgian hospitality. In no other place have I seen the like.

The Georgians take enormous pride in feeding and tending to their guests, and will prepare feasts at any hour even for complete strangers. Pitchers of liquid at breakfast are more likely to be expensive wine than juice. To tell the host we enjoyed a dish was to request at least three more servings of it. The one downside to this is that, as guests, we had to receive this hospitality graciously or offend our hosts. Thus, we grimly chewed down four or five massive meals a day.

When our digestive systems finally adjusted, we realized there were far more interesting things to experience in Georgia than just the food. Beneath the smiling exteriors, the Georgians have steely cores. This is a country that in 2008 faced the wrath of a nation 60 times its size, with more than 30 times its population.

With international help, the Russian invasion stopped short of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi after five days, however Russia still controls more than 20 percent of Georgia’s sovereign territory. Georgia struggles to resist Russian political pressure, and another war is an eminent possibility.

To live in the shadow of such a powerful enemy is no easy task, and we received many interesting perspectives on it from journalists, sailors, refugees, doctors, and members of the U.S. embassy.  However, the group most threatened by Russian pressure is of course the military.

For me, the most interesting discussion we had was at the major cadet training center, the National Defense Academy of Georgia. The Defense Academy is new, built in 2011. Only three years earlier, this area had been a military base which was obliterated by the Russians during the invasion. The new buildings stand defiant and gleaming, a sign of the modernization occurring within the Georgian military.

Their academy is small relative to ours, with a class size of approximately 150 and only one or two women per class.

We began with a presentation to a sleepy group of cadets who were summoned from leave to greet us. Though quiet at first, when they started giving us a tour of their facilities, their enthusiasm soon overcame their drowsiness.  All of the cadets were fervent about their service and excited for the opportunities it might afford them.

Their training is much like ours, with four years of military preparation, a college degree, and then 5 years of service. They discussed the woes of plebe life, the relative difficulty of classes, training for their monthly fitness tests, cheering for the rugby team (their only interscholastic team), and the struggle to make weekends fun.

The most interesting conversation that I had was with Mikhail Machablishvili, a platoon commander at the academy who is also a 2013 USNA graduate from 6th Company. He has in-depth knowledge of both academies, and to hear his perspective on what the Georgian academy is doing right and wrong was fascinating.

Their academy prioritizes military training over academic development, which can be more fun – as when they shoot off RPGs – but also fails to develop communication and critical thinking skills. They do not have a system of peer leadership as USNA does. Everything is run by sergeants and a few officers, and the cadets for the most part just do what they are told.

The purpose of the academy is still very general and unfocused, which can result in problems with interpretation. Machablishvili is currently working with the higher leadership to develop a mission statement. The cadets commission into a military facing very formidable odds, and they need the best training they can get.

Though the military training is still developing, the warrior spirit had been inculcated in these cadets since childhood. No matter where we went in the country, from wineries in the mountains to festivals in Tbilisi, a fierce determination was present. The Georgians will eagerly share everything that they have with a guest, but they will never willingly surrender anything to an enemy. 

My first impression was that Georgian culture is very different from American culture. However, once I adjusted to the exotic food and unique language, I realized that it could in fact be summed up with a very familiar phrase:  “No better friend, no worse enemy.”

Our travels through Georgia were eye-opening, even inspiring. None of the midshipmen granted this opportunity will ever forget this incredible experience.

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