Editor’s note: This interview was conducted at the end of July at Vaziani military base, a Georgian base located at the edge of Tbilisi, Georgia. Most American service members involved in exercise "Immediate Response 08" left the country a few days prior to the outbreak of war between Georgia and Russia that began Aug. 7.
Tbilisi, Georgia — Two Gainesville natives recently were welcomed to this historic land, nestled between the Black and Caspian seas at the furthest eastern edge of Europe.
This small mountainous country borders Turkey and Russia and is home to an ancient people and culture.
Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is more than 1,500 years old and has Orthodox Christian cathedrals that have stood well over 1,000 years.
Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Brian K. Cagle, son of Ken Cagle, Thunder River Drive, Gainesville, and Army National Guard Pfc. Jacob N. Callaway, a 2004 graduate of Riverside Military Academy, were here serving as American military ambassadors of good will during a cooperative exchange of ideas with the Georgian Armed Forces.
More than 900 American service members, mainly Marines and soldiers, converged at this former Soviet base to improve understanding between the militaries and to share their knowledge.
Cagle is a platoon sergeant assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment from Covington. Callaway is an infantryman assigned to Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment from Milledgeville. Cagle and Callaway both traveled to Vaziani military base, located on the edge of Tbilisi, to participate in "Immediate Response 08," an exercise designed to improve understanding and strengthen regional cooperation. The nearby countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine were also a part of the event with small staffs of observers.
Cagle and Callaway recognized the importance of their duties and responsibilities here.
"We’ve been conducting live-fire exercises and situational training. I’m in charge of 26 soldiers in day-to-day operations and of an infantry platoon," said Cagle, a 1988 graduate of South Gwinnett High School.
"We’re here to help our allies become better soldiers. We’re teaching them our tactics and training them on our weapons," Callaway said.
American military personnel from stations in the U.S. and Europe spent a couple of weeks to a month at this Georgian base, living, eating, sharing military tactics, playing sports and holding ceremonies with the Georgian military. Military situational training was conducted with an Iraq scenario.
Nearly 500 combat lifesavers were certified. They learned methods of reacting to roadside bombs. And sponsorship of two local orphanages also was accomplished during the military exercise.
The U.S. and Georgia have some history of working together, but convened here to strengthen their bond. The Georgian military contributes the third largest amount of coalition troops in Iraq.
Georgia also has vocalized a desire to become a member of NATO. They were a host to President George W. Bush in 2004 and the main highway leading from Tbilisi to the international airport was renamed "George W. Bush Street" following his first-ever American presidential visit to Georgia.
For the Americans who came here, interacting with the Georgians was an interesting learning experience.
"The language barrier is a slight problem, but we have overcome that and became good friends. We have even played soccer with them," Callaway said.
"The Georgian army is very quick to learn and very eager to obtain knowledge. I also have learned they are very supportive of the United States," Cagle said.
Georgia is known for its diverse, but mostly pleasant climate. Slightly larger than West Virginia, Georgia has more than 500 varieties of wine, beaches on the Black Sea and ski resorts in the Caucasus Mountains.
Georgia is also the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, a man who rose to become the Soviet leader and U.S. ally during World War II.
Cagle’s and Callaway’s observations were positive.
"The people are nice and receptive here. Although separated by many miles, I have seen some Southern hospitality just like what you’d find in Georgia in the United States," Cagle said.
"The countryside is like a painting or something. It’s very beautiful here," Callaway said.
Their military backgrounds illustrate why Cagle and Callaway were a good choice in representing the U.S. military in this endeavor.
"I’ve been in the Army since June, 2004, and I’m loving every minute of it. So, I plan to stay in for awhile," Callaway said.
"I’ve served for 15 years to include a tour in Kosovo in 2000, and in Iraq in 2005-2006. I’m planning to prepare for our future deployment and retire in five years," Cagle said.
Shared military knowledge in an ancient land is what Cagle and Callaway are likely to remember from their days in Georgia, but from a larger political perspective, they are ambassadors of good will to a people who desire an even closer future relationship.