JERSEY CITY, N.J. – The men and women in crisp U.S. military uniforms walked in close formation through the bustling, traffic-choked streets, passing women in full Muslim hijab, sari-clad Indian mothers pushing strollers, worshippers heading to an Egyptian Coptic church, and small shops with signs in Arabic, Hindi, Korean and a dozen other languages.
It wasn't a tour of duty overseas, but a field trip to Jersey City, just 60 miles down the Hudson River from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
The city of 250,000 is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse places in America, and the West Point cadets are visiting as part of a class at the academy on peacekeeping and reconstruction called "Winning the Peace." The class ends in a three-day crash course designed to make the future officers — and, ultimately, the soldiers under their command — more sensitive to cultural differences.
The program is in its eighth year but has taken on new urgency as the Army deals with the fallout from a string of embarrassing episodes in Afghanistan, including reports of U.S. soldiers posing with the bloody remains of suicide bombers, urinating on Afghan corpses and burning Muslim holy books.
During the visit to Jersey City, the 23 cadets in the class stay overnight at a mosque and attend Islamic prayers. They also go to an Egyptian Coptic Christian church, a synagogue and a Hindu religious service, and sample the foods of the cultures they encounter.
West Point cadets, who graduate as second lieutenants in the Army, come from every state in the nation. Some hail from small towns.
Senior Megan Kelty, 21, from Urbana, Iowa, a town of about 1,500, said she knows her upbringing didn't offer her much diversity, so she has made a special effort to learn about other cultures and religions.
"We talk a lot about how as officers we set the tone for those we'll be leading, and the way we behave is going to set the example for how everyone in the unit is behaving," Kelty said. "So if somebody's going to get it right, it's got to be me."
At the Islamic Center of Jersey City, where the cadets stay, program organizer Ahmed Shedeed said the visit to the city is an eye-opener for some students.
"Some of these soldiers have never seen anybody different. Some have never seen a black person or eaten Chinese food, and they come to a place like Jersey City and they understand they're not the only ones in the world, that there are civilizations and cultures that came before theirs," he said.
Emad Attaalaa of St. George's Egyptian Coptic Church, where the cadets spent an afternoon learning about the history of the church and enjoyed a Middle Eastern-style lunch, said the program has mutual benefits, getting young people from his largely Egyptian congregation interested in the military or a career in law enforcement.
"Kids in the church come and ask me after meeting the cadets, 'What do you think about joining the Army?'" he said.
At the Islamic Center, congregants explained to the cadets the importance of removing their shoes in prayer areas, and the female cadets were shown the proper way to cover themselves with Muslim headscarves out of respect.
Jersey City sits across the Hudson River from New York. Nearly 40 percent of the population is foreign-born, and more than half its residents speak a language other than English at home, according to census figures. It has a large Muslim population. Some of the plotters of the deadly 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center attended a mosque there.
Col. Cindy Jebb, a social sciences professor at West Point who has taught course on cultural anthropology as well as terrorism and counterterrorism, said the academy is fortunate to have such a melting pot close by.
"When you start to learn about other cultures, it makes you very self-aware, helps create a more adaptable thinker, and it develops empathy," she said.
Although this year's visit focused on the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East, she said the controversies that have hurt U.S. efforts to gain the trust of Afghans are also discussed with cadets.
"We always use such incidents as a learning opportunity," Jebb said. "Looking at it in the larger context of understanding that these actions of a few do not reflect the entire military, we discuss why these actions are so detrimental, and how you go about building a tone within a unit of cultural understanding."
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