August 9, 2011 — Standing on the crowded sidelines Friday at the University of Virginia's first football practice of the season, British Army Sgt. Maj. Ben Butler spent a moment watching receivers run practice routes, then turned to a student next to him.
"Do you have any idea what's going on?" he said.
The British student, one of 26 from the Northumbrian Universities Officers Training Corps who recently visited Charlottesville as part of an exchange program with U.Va.'s Army ROTC, shook his head.
The practice visit was one of several events the British cadets took in during their two-week stay in the Charlottesville area, which ends Wednesday. They also hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail, tubed the James River, visited a U.S. Navy base in Virginia Beach and toured the U.S.S. Eisenhower.
"Some of our students have been to the States before; others have never been outside of Europe," said British Army Maj. Tom Ross, who works at the Northumbrian Universities Officers Training Corps, which draws students from several universities near Newcastle upon Tyne. "It's been incredible. We've been completely immersed in the Charlottesville culture for the past week."
For the flip side of the exchange, five American ROTC cadets – three from U.Va. and two from Liberty University – spent a month in Europe this summer training with their British counterparts at a series of exercises.
"It was really amazing," said retired Army Maj. Robert Foy, an assistant professor of military science with the Liberty ROTC, who escorted the American cadets. "We got to the U.K. and a day later we were taking an overnight ferry into Amsterdam, then we were bused down to Paderborn, Germany.
"The training was right outside of Paderborn. There was some classroom work and field training and they ended it with an adventure weekend which consisted of an orienteering course in the Harz Mountains."
U.S. Army Capt. Mark Davison, an assistant professor of military science with U.Va.'s Army ROTC unit, said the U.Va. cadets went through a rigorous program that will help prepare them for future training.
"What they went through over there was actually more intense than the training they're going to do next summer here in Fort Lewis, Wash., so they'll be very well prepared," Davison said.
Foy said the American cadets spent 15 days of their month-long trip in the field practicing tactical operations.
"It was very physically demanding," he said. "They were carrying heavy loads, covering long distances, going through some pretty tough stuff."
Britain's Ross said the British cadets, who went through the summer training before traveling to Virginia, used their trip stateside as more of a cultural exchange.
"We came over here and had all this fun, and when they were there they went out on exercise," he said with a smile. "But I think for them, it was certainly beneficial in terms of their soldiering skills, and seeing how the British Army operates."
Foy agreed that both parties benefited from exposure to a foreign military.
"Given that they are probably our closest ally, and we're apt to have more multi-national missions in our future, it's very valuable for us to get to know their culture and their system," he said. "You think because we both speak English that everything would be the same, but it's not."
Ross and Butler saw part of that cultural difference Friday on the sidelines of the football practice field adjacent to University Hall.
"It's a giant mystery," Ross said of the practice. "It's cool though. We play a lot of rugby back home, and this seems like the equivalent."
American football exists at the collegiate level in the U.K., but is more of niche sport, he said. Players often haven't played prior to college.
"It's amazing to come to Charlottesville and see how much everyone in the entire town is involved in this," he said. "It's been great."