ATLANTIC OCEAN - En route to Rota, Spain, Sailors on the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) balanced their time between executing the timeless routine of Sailors at sea and engaging in a unique array of language and culture classes intended to help prepare them to be stationed in a new country.
Ross embarked instructors from Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) and Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota during its transit to provide education that helps Ross Sailors prepare for life at NAVSTA Rota, a place where the American flag is scheduled to fly only once a year, on the 4th of July.
The NIOC instructors were aboard Ross to cover the basics of Spanish and other regional languages and dialects, introduce the cultures and religions of the region, and instruct Sailors on how to understand, respond and adapt to the cultural differences they will encounter while operating forward. Their lessons emphasized the importance of recognizing the various manners in which two cultures can come into conflict when differences are not understood or allowed for.
For example, in Spain, a Sailor should not ask Spaniards how they are doing unless the Sailor is willing to stop and have an actual conversation. To ask the question rhetorically in passing is considered an insult.
To illustrate a potentially serious cultural misunderstanding, another common cultural difference in Spain is during Semana Santa,the annual Holy Week processions. Our Sailors may find themselves among groups of Spaniards clothed in robes with pointed hoods, attire that Americans traditionally associate with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). But the robed and hooded Spaniards are in fact Roman Catholic penitents connected with religious brotherhoods like the Nazarenos, taking part in Easter processional ceremonies. The pointed hoods are capirote hats that have been in use for centuries.
Understanding the differences between two cultures is not just a classroom exercise when living in a foreign country; it’s a way of life.
Also embarked on the ship were NAVSTA Rota’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) fitness coordinator, and a Spanish national who works for NAVSTA Rota’s Fleet and Family Support Center and helps run the mandatory intercultural relations class for all active duty personnel assigned to Rota. They provided Sailors with an introduction to Spain, the province of Cadiz, and life aboard NAVSTA Rota, where they create “a little bit of home in Spain” as they help Sailors establish familiarity, build connections and develop a sense of comfort in their new home.
It is important for Sailors to realize that support services are the same at Rota as they are anywhere in the Navy; it is equally important for them to make new connections and new adjustments.
NAVSTA Rota is located on the Spanish navy’s Base, Naval de Rota, so Ross Sailors will not just be interacting with the surrounding Spanish communities, they will be working in an environment that is owned, controlled by and shared with the Spanish navy. In addition to the Spanish sailors who share the base, 70 percent of NAVSTA Rota’s employees are required to be Spanish nationals based on the Agreement on Defense Cooperation. Ross Sailors were asked to remember that they and all U.S. employees aboard NAVSTA Rota are guests of the Spanish government.
Even though many Sailors on the Ross speak some Spanish — we even had a former Spanish teacher aboard — they have been warned to not underestimate the respective differences between American and Spanish cultures, even two as seemingly linked by history and shared worldviews.
Ross Sailors had to make time for these classes throughout each day’s work cycle, though the underway schedule on Ross makes it challenging for our Sailors to focus on the life they had not yet begun living.
The short educational courses were not a replacement for the experience of actually living in a foreign country. Most of our Sailors will learn their most important lessons once they arrive in Rota. They will spend their first weeks getting lost, testing their rudimentary Spanish, and enduring cultural missteps while they settle in. But for those who can find the time, the guidance from NIOC and NAVSTA Rota has helped set expectations and open our Sailors’ eyes to the need to judge and assess Spanish life and culture on its own merits.
As the second of four destroyers stationed in Spain by late 2015 in support of the European Phased Adaptive Approach to Ballistic Missile Defense, Ross is not the first and will not be the last ship to receive these lessons. In the next 12-16 months, there will be as many as an additional 600 Sailors from USS Porter (DDG 78) and USS Carney (DDG 64) who will take part in these underway classes, as they too cross the Atlantic for their new home in Rota. Together, these ships represent the first permanent U.S. ship presence in Rota since the submarine tender USS Canopus (AS 34) returned to the U.S. in 1979.
The learning process never ends, and Sailors from the Ross continue to deepen their understanding of Spain and the Spanish people in Rota and immerse themselves in the culture of one of the United States’ strongest NATO allies.