French soldier Sabrina Vernay has been part of the Franco-German Brigade for five years, but she's yet to be deployed abroad with her German colleagues. Political indecision in Berlin and Paris is to blame.
Sabrina Vernay and her army comrades don't like to hear their unit described as being "military drill world champions" - especially not when their unit lives by the motto, "committed to the best." More than 20 years after the founding of the brigade, the soldiers from Germany and France still haven't been able to demonstrate their number one skill out on deployment: binational cooperation.
"Of course we want to be deployed together. There's nothing more frustrating than training together, then being sent on separate missions abroad," says Vernay, leader of the headquarter company of the Franco-German Brigade in Müllheim, south of Freiburg. And yet Vernay knows that complicated matters prevent such a deployment, such as the issue with the German army vehicles, to name but one example. But more on that later.
Vernay, from Saint-Etienne near Lyon, is among the old hands in Müllheim. She's been based in Germany since 2007 and is currently serving as head of a large team of German and French soldiers, giving her commands in both languages.
"The brigade's policy is that soldiers should be able to express themselves in their native language, while at the same time understanding other soldiers speaking their native language," says Vernay. As a former German student, this policy is no problem for her, nor for most of the other officers in her unit. And for those who don't speak a second language, someone is always on hand to translate. Cooperation is part of daily life in the brigade.
It's only when the soldiers are sent on missions abroad that suddenly everything is different, with each nation doing its own thing. In Afghanistan, for instance, German soldiers from the brigade were sent to the north of the country, while their French comrades were sent to the east - despite having been trained together for such tricky situations for more than two decades.
Keeping it balanced
The military experiment, unique in the world, was agreed by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand in the late 1980s. Though at first there were doubts, 20 years of successful cooperation have put those to rest, says Vernay.
At first glance, the system sounds complicated. Leadership positions in the Franco-German Brigade are rotated between French and German members, preventing dominance by any one nation.
Even the brigade's equipment is mixed. Take, for example, the beret: the navy blue color of the soldiers' headgear follows French tradition, but the design and positioning of the beret's badge are German. The blending of two different cultures facilitates everyday life in the barracks.
Vernay, 31, was exposed to German culture early on when one of her teachers in elementary school stoked her interest in the neighboring country. This initial curiosity was followed by a stint as an au pair in Innsbruck, a semester abroad in Wuppertal and an internship in Saarbrücken, eventually leading her to the brigade.
Vernay is convinced that despite differing outward appearances, soldiers on both sides of the border are on the same wavelength. "What counts is the mission, in Germany and in France," she says.
Part of the community
This attitude differs from that of the first French troops in Müllheim, occupation forces stationed in southern Germany after World War II. They had their own separate facilities and generally kept to themselves, choosing not to mingle with the locals.
Today, things are different: sister city partnerships between France and Germany are common, army delegations take part in commemoration ceremonies in both countries and soldiers generally act as part of the local community. The old neighborhood housing the foreign soldiers has remained, though today people from both countries live there.
"When I come back from training and see the bridge in Müllheim, I know I'm home," says Vernay. Though she'll have to leave the brigade in 2014 and head back to France, Vernay expects to take what she's learned in Germany back home with her.
A "civic education," for example - a German idea that has since found its way into the French mindset in Müllheim. A compulsory army education is not common in France, not in this form, though Vernay thinks it's now more necessary than ever.
"If one speaks with young French soldiers about the November 11 [armistice], they often don't know whether this was in World War I or World War II," she says.
Such knowledge gaps are quickly filled in the brigade. And whenever France or Germany celebrates its national holiday, the brigade organizes what's known in Müllheim as cohesion days. Activities on these days range from a common sporting event, a visit to a war cemetery in the region or a shared meal.
French in the casino, Germans in the kitchen
There are, however, options for the French and German soldiers to spend some time apart, should the constant togetherness ever grate on the nerves. The French soldiers have taken to using a classy casino near the barracks as a sort of clubhouse.
In theory, the historic building is open to officers from both countries, but in reality, the Germans prefer to fill up on hearty food in the brigade kitchen, leaving the French to enjoy their lunch break with red wine and a multi-course menu.
The long lunch allows Vernay time to think seriously about the future - about, for example, how long it will take lawyers to clear the final hurdles to allow the brigade to carry out joint missions.
It sounds crazy, but while a German soldier in Kosovo is able to use his firearm to prevent the theft of a German army vehicle, this same option is forbidden for French soldiers. What, then, would happen in the case of a combat situation, for example?
Two countries, two legal systems - but only one brigade. More than two decades after its inception, there's still much to be done before the organization is able to field joint operations. The defense ministers in both countries have pledged action, and soon. Sabrina Vernay is keeping her fingers crossed.
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