US Soldier Reconnects With Indonesian Roots

U.S. Army Capt. Michelle Sukardi Kania and Maj. Zulhamidi Lubis of the Indonesian air force during Exercise Gema Bhakti in Jakarta, Indonesia, Sept. 16, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps/2nd Lt. Michael Maggitti)
U.S. Army Capt. Michelle Sukardi Kania and Maj. Zulhamidi Lubis of the Indonesian air force during Exercise Gema Bhakti in Jakarta, Indonesia, Sept. 16, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps/2nd Lt. Michael Maggitti)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Deploying to a country where 237 million inhabitants from more than 300 distinct native ethnic groups speak over 700 different languages sounds like a daunting mission.

For one U.S. soldier, however, navigating the Indonesian culture and understanding the local dialect is easier than it sounds.

U.S. Army Capt. Michelle Sukardi Kania, who grew up Jakarta, Indonesia, has returned home for the first time since childhood to participate in Exercise Gema Bhakti 2015.

Born in the U.S.A.

Kania, who was born in Los Angeles, moved at age four when her parents, both natives of Indonesia, returned to their homeland. While in Jakarta, she assimilated quickly into the Indonesian culture; then, in 1998, she relocated to Los Angeles after political instability across the country prompted a U.S. Embassy noncombatant evacuation operation. Until the NEO, she had been attending the Jakarta International School, which is taught in English.

After one year in Los Angeles, Kania returned to Jakarta to finish her high school education before moving to Switzerland for two years. While in Europe, she learned to speak German, which led to her interest in international business at the University of San Francisco. It was during her collegiate years, Kania said, that she pursued her true calling in the armed forces.

"I always had a desire to join the U.S. military, thanks to my father," Kania said. "He was too old to join by the time he had moved to the States but always wanted to serve. He continues to be a strong influence in my military career starting from the day he taught me to shoot a rifle at age 7. Additionally, fleeing Jakarta at a young age due to the political unrest made me truly appreciate the freedom and rights we have as U.S. citizens."

Earning a Commission

After commissioning through the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, Kania has since deployed repeatedly throughout the Pacific and Middle East area of operations to include tours to both Iraq and Afghanistan. As an officer who speaks English, German and Indonesian, she has a global perspective that was developed at an early age and honed in the military. However, across all her travels and cultural interactions, this is her first assignment in Indonesia.

"I was both excited and nervous when asked to serve as an interpreter for U.S. forces during the exercise," Kania said. "This is the first time in an Army capacity that I have had to rely on my knowledge of not only the Indonesian dialect but the culture and customs of its people."

As a linguistics specialist and interpreter at GB15, Kania is a strategic liaison between U.S. soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen and their counterparts in the Indonesian military — officially called Tentara Nasional Indonesia. Drawing from her understanding of both cultures and languages, she said she bridges gaps between the two nations by translating technical doctrine to the respective audience in more familiar terms.

Serving as an Interpreter

"Having an interpreter who has lived in the host nation is not common," said Lt. Col. Harto of the Indonesian Army, chief of subdirectorate of language translating and interpreting at the Defense Language, Education and Training Center within the Indonesian Ministry of Defense. "Captain Kania presents a clearer picture to the TNI service members — one that is brief and readily understood by all. She is directly contributing to the mutual learning experience between U.S. and TNI forces at Gema Bhakti."

Over a ten-day period, participants of GB15 are learning and exchanging tactics, techniques and procedures related to humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief operations. According to Kania, the TNI members have a wealth of experience that they are eager to share with the U.S. service members.

Kania said she's learning along with them, considering she had little to no exposure to the TNI forces during her childhood in Jakarta. Since leaving over 10 years ago, she said she's not had any formal training in the Indonesian language.

"I've gained a profound respect for the Indonesian forces in my short time during this exercise," Kania said. "They have taught me so much about the culture I never knew before, and my vocabulary is stronger now than it ever was before."

In its third iteration, Gema Bhakti continues to build the bilateral and joint operational planning and execution capabilities for HA/DR response. More importantly, however, it fosters both new and old relationships between the U.S. and TNI that will pay dividends in the future when the unfortunate reality of nature unfolds.

"It has been a distinct honor knowing that I've played a role in helping two nations cross cultural barriers so that they can better serve their country and partnering nations when the next crisis hits," Kania said.

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