By Senior Airman Victoria Greenia
158th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
About 40 members of the Vermont Army National Guard joined a dozen other countries in the former Yugoslav Republic of North Macedonia in May for a two-week long NATO exercise that was designed to enhance interoperability between participating countries. Named Cooperative Lancer and Longbow, the Vermont Army National Guard members worked with fellow military men and women from more than a dozen NATO countries and NATO-partner countries. Vermont has had a good relationship with North Macedonia via the State Partnership Program since 1993 which has fostered close ties between the two groups.
Capt. Gene Enriquez with VTARNG was involved with the planning of the exercise and, while it was in progress, was the Deputy Company Commander. He knew that the team from Vermont would be instructing many tactics for peace-keeping, but he was truly surprised at how much NATO valued their opinions. “To them, the U.S. military is one of the most experienced in the world, and getting training from us was a received as though it was an honor,” he said.
The Vermont Guard came in two separate sections: a group of instructors who had the experience and qualifications to teach and 28 soldiers from the Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Camp Ethan Allen Training Site who integrated with foreign troops.
Lancer was set up as a small base camp with all the countries housed in barracks together. Tents provided classrooms for the first day of training, but for the following days were moved outside for a more practical hands-on. In round-robin spanning across the camp, Vermont instructors worked hard to help lay the foundation for a common ground among the troops. Sand tables were incredibly useful for larger-scale operations, Enriquez said. For example, base defense was detailed out with miniature buildings, vehicles, and toy soldiers. An instructor set up a scenario and then would invite the soldiers of the other countries to show how they would approach the situation. Then he would show them how the U.S. military would approach it. But, Enriquez stressed, “The purpose wasn’t to tell a foreign nation that their military tactics were wrong. It was to show other possible ways to complete a military task. We learned, too.”
Staff Sgt. Vernon Edmonds with the 124th RTI at Camp Johnson participated in Lancer as an instructor and described the method of training as the crawl-walk-run system. Basically this meant the instruction began verbal, then was demonstrated, then was practiced. Every foreign-speaking squadron had at least one person who could speak English well enough to translate to the others, which made the process fairly smooth.
But, of course, action speaks louder than words. In teaching how to detain and search a prisoner, which Edmunds taught, a more hands-on approach was appropriate. As he went through each step of how to detain an enemy, he made sure to carefully explain each step thoroughly, using one of the trainees to pose as a detainee that he secures and searches. If he felt they were up for it, he made time to have them search him for the half dozen weapons he hid on his body. “Some countries have been in many conflicts over the years and our training wasn’t new,” he said. “But for everybody I teach, I assume they have no prior knowledge. If they are quick to learn or have obvious experience, I adjust my approach and speed.”
Cordon and search had a mock house with boxes and hidden items. After a thorough explanation of how to identify potential hazards, the men and women were expected to enter and scour for weapons. “We are soldiers,” said the instructor to trainees who were leery of a large and suspicious box in the middle of the mock house. “We know when we join the military that we may be asked to do something that could put our lives in danger. We’ve been told to search the house and that includes opening the box – so we open the box. But we need to know how to do it with caution and thought.”
Col. Hans Reimer from Germany, the officer in charge for the Lancer exercise, said he appreciated the Vermont Army National Guard’s role in the exercise. “The Vermont men have a high level of training and leadership,” he said. “I see it in their skills, capabilities, appearance, instruction, and caring for the troops. They managed to integrated with the other troops and yet still direct. I can see they love their job and they make the U.S.A. National Guard shine.”
Reimer pointed out that if the idea of the exercise was to enhance interoperability between troops of different cultures and language, the success was evident in the after hours. A volleyball or foot-ball (known as a soccer-ball in the United States) would appear shortly after the work day ended, and the European soldiers would show off professional moves to their American counter-parts. One afternoon a few of the Mountain infantry showed an Armenian sergeant how to create and secure repelling gear from a section of rope, then to ascend and repel down a tree. Several of the foreign soldiers excelled at hand-to-hand combat and would spend hours showing bewildering self-defense maneuvers. When the warm day cooled into night, the troops would mingle at the nearby cantina and joke with each other over the day’s training.
Spc. Gary Whitt, a soldier in the Alpha Company 3-172nd Infantry (Mountain), spent almost all his personal hours at Cooperative Lancer making friends with the international soldiers. They would have coffees, talk about each other’s homelands, play games, and trade interesting items. He keeps in touch with several of his new friends from all over Europe and he hopes to visit some of them in the near future. Whitt said this was the best mission in his five-year army career, which includes a deployment in Afghanistan. From personal experience he said he knows that being able to communicate with foreign counter-parts directly affects morale.
“What you learn here goes beyond tactical knowledge,” he said. “You learn social skills that are invaluable for any deployment. In today’s joint army there’s people from all over the world – if you don’t have the personal skills to overcome language barriers, you’re putting the mission at risk. It’s essential to be able to find common ground, even if it’s mainly by pointing and using facial expressions.” One of his closest friends he made over there didn’t speak a word of English and he said they hung out all the time.
Enriquez agreed that missions like Cooperative Lancer boils down to the ability to form relationships and work with anyone they are paired with. Knowing how to compromise and adapt in a multi-national military setting will make any mission a success.
“I would like to see events like this with even more people, like an entire Vermont battalion go over to do its annual training with (North) Macedonians,” he said. “As opposed to a two to three person team who comes to talk only with higher NCO’s, how much more valuable is it to have a 100 of our lower enlisted be able to live with a 100 of the lower enlisted from (North) Macedonia – to sleep in the same area, eat at the same tables and the same food, and hang out at the same place after work. We would impact each other from the ground up and form real relationships.”
Backing up his point, Enriquez pointed out that Vermont was the first state to have its State Partnership counterpart join them in a war zone. “Prior to 2009, the most people we sent over to train in (North) Macedonia was 12. Three years later, (North) Macedonia co-deployed 70 soldiers when we went down range to Afghanistan. When we train together in missions like Lancer, both sides win.”