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Minnesota National Guard
Strengthening a pragmatic, advantageous partnership

ZAGREB, Croatia " Perspective Knowledge Partnership Strength

Soldiers of the Moorhead, Minn-based 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry gathered around their unit commander, Lt. Col. Mark Wiens, for a briefing prior to boarding an airplane destined for Croatia at Hector International Airport, in Fargo, ND, June 4

As part of an ongoing partnership between the Minnesota National Guard and the nation of Croatia, the Soldiers were prepared to visit and train with the Croatian military as an interoperable force throughout a historic multi-national exercise, June 6 to June 17

Wiens asked his visibly ardent Soldiers to remain focused on the task ahead of them He asked them to be present and aware of the opportunity available to them He urged them not to waste this opportunity to gain new perspective, develop and refine their knowledge and skills, fortify a larger existing partnership, and grow stronger as a collective force

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The Soldiers' senior enlisted leader, Command Sgt Maj Marcus Erickson, followed Wiens in addressing the group of Minnesota Soldiers He faced them with an exceedingly short list of expectations

"I expect your best," said Erickson

Erickson told them about how they were about to embark on a mission to participate in the first training exercise-conducted collaboratively between the National Guard and Croatian Armed Forces-of this particular magnitude He explained to them that they would be setting standards and creating a mold for future operations and interactions with Croatia, which has partnered with Minnesota under the State Partnership Program since July 1996

State Partnership Program

The State Partnership Program evolved from a post-Cold War, 1993 US European Command decision to set up the Joint Contact Team Program (JCTP) to assist Central European countries and their militaries in the transition to democracy and free market economies The JCTP is specifically designed to expose host nations to US-style military under civilian control, and help them achieve stability, democratization, and closer ties with NATO

The JCTP was originally implemented in the Baltics by reserve component Soldiers and Airmen At the time, it was believed reserve component personnel would present a less provocative posture to the new Russian Federation

A subsequent National Guard Bureau proposal to pair state National Guards with the countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania formally initiated the program Since then, the initiative has grown far beyond JCTP and is now a key US security cooperation tool, facilitating mutual cooperation across all aspects of international civil-military affairs

Today, the National Guard provides its unique capacity building capabilities to combatant commanders and US Ambassadors by partnering 43 US states, two territories, and the District of Columbia with 66 countries around the world through the State Partnership Program

Minnesota and Croatia

Through the State Partnership Program, the Minnesota National Guard supports Croatian contributions and capabilities for peacekeeping, humanitarian relief, search-and-rescue operations and law enforcement The Minnesota Guard also assists in the development and interoperability of Croatia's military In fact, Croatian military leaders credit the nation's partnership with Minnesota with helping the country win an invitation to full NATO membership

Retired Lt Gen H Steven Blum, the former chief of the National Guard Bureau said the invitation was recognition of the huge transformation that has occurred in modernizing their force and moving toward a NATO model

"A good measure of that success is attributable to the successful partnership program between Minnesota and the Croatians," said Blum "There's no question a very palpable trust, confidence and enduring relationship has been built between Minnesota and the Croatian military, which is absolutely invaluable to a good partnership They have made up many, many years in a very short period of time because of the strength of the partnership," said Blum

Since Croatia and Minnesota partnered under the State Partnership Program in 1996, the Minnesota National Guard has participated in well over a hundred bilateral activities with Croatia, including multiple iterations of developing and fielding combined Operational Mentoring Liaison Teams (OMLTs) to serve in Afghanistan An OMLT is a multidisciplinary group of experienced NATO (and/or International Security Assistance Force) Soldiers that is formed to embed with, and provide training and mentoring to, units of the Afghan National Army

This month, under the State Partnership Program, Soldiers from the 2nd Combined Arms Bn, 136th Infantry, participated in a large multinational exercise coined Immediate Response 11

Immediate Response 11

Immediate Response (IR 11) was a multi-national exercise that included more than 1,000 participants from across Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas and Utah National Guards, US Army Europe, the United States Air Force and service members from Croatia, Montenegro, Germany, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia

The exercise fell within a category of bilateral activities under the State Partnership Program meant to promote and enhance the interoperability of NATO countries Through IR 11, Wiens and his Soldiers worked to bolster cooperation and partnership between the Minnesota National Guard and Croatian forces

IR 11 marked the first time US and Croatians have combined forces to simultaneously train at the company level and at the battalion level-the level of military organization that is generally regarded as the first level capable of planning and conducting operations independently

From the onset of IR 11, the platoons of B Company, 2nd Combined Arms Bn, 136th Infantry, began honing and sharing skills and tactical knowledge with Croatian Army counterparts at an army base located in Slunj, a town in the mountains region of central Croatia This Field Training Exercise (FTX) portion of IR 11 included exercises in cordon-and-search procedures, mounted and dismounted patrols and improvised explosive devise (IED) clearance

Concurrently, the battalion commander and his staff were engaged in a Command Post Exercise (CPX) at the Simulation Center on the Croatian Military Academy post, in Zagreb At the Simulation Center, the combined-US and Croatian-battalion conducted operations from a command level, where they were communicating with a higher (brigade) headquarters and company commanders from Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia to defeat a mock insurgency


"This is the first time that we've done both a company- and battalion-level combined exercise with our Croatian partners," said Wiens "IR11 is not only an opportunity, it's also an accomplishment attributable to the leadership from both nations to commit this partnership to the next level This level and style of exercise cannot merely be accomplished on computer, over the phone or in video teleconference; it requires presence It's not merely what is said and done during the exercise It's the bonding, sharing and combined problem solving that shapes our experience and appreciation of each other's skills The key is the unity of effort displayed at all levels, from squad to battalion command, with our comrades-in-arms in order to achieve our training objectives It's about building the relationship we have both as Soldiers and as members of NATO"

"The operational theme of the exercise is counterinsurgency," Wiens continued, "with the operating environment based on an Afghan scenario The end state is a deeper appreciation of our coalition partners and a better understanding of their capabilities ultimately building interoperability and trust I hope we, the US, gain a better understanding of the Croatian army perspective and operational techniques, tactics and procedures, both in the field and at the headquarters"

Lt. Col. Zeliko Nakic, Wiens' counterpart for the CPX and commander of the 2nd Motorized Battalion, agreed "I believe my soldiers and my staff will have a very positive experience during this exercise," Nakic said "I think that afterward we will all be more educated about each other and ready for the next mission"

Wiens went on to explain how training would be conducted throughout the exercise During the FTX, a platoon from each company is assigned to the other nation's company, making them combined units

"This is the first time we've done that I'm very excited about the possibilities, not just the bonding and sharing of war stories, but actually going through the techniques, tactics and procedures," Wiens said

As mentioned earlier, Soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard and the Croatian Army are conducting operations together as OMLT teams in Afghanistan This means being able to work together effectively is imperative

"The OMLT teams-we're conducting our fifth iteration right now-are combined in Afghanistan The officer-in-charge of the team is Croatian and the deputy is an American Their purpose is to mentor Afghan National Army units," said Wiens

The relationship that has been established over time between the two forces has been built on trust By training together, the two organizations have inspired and earned a level of confidence in each other that makes operations on the battlefield run more smoothly

"The soldiers, NCOs and officers during this exercise will come to relate to each other in a way that couldn't happen if we weren't training together," Nakic explained "A lot of these soldiers will meet again, maybe in Afghanistan In this situation both of our soldiers will already have had the chance to work together, and they will have a better level of trust in each other We are partners"

"The trust we share is very important; we're there to back each other up," Wiens agreed "Trust is built into our daily routine here; it's built into our tasks, and it becomes even more important in combat situations such as Afghanistan"


Rolling hills and breathtaking views on the military base in Slunj mimic the geographic beauty of much of Afghanistan Likewise, the training center's narrow roads and paths wrap tightly around the sloping earth, imitating the transportation horror and tactical challenges provided by the dangerous roads of Afghanistan

Soldiers from Company B, 2nd Combined Arms Bn, 136th Infantry, conducted patrols that included training in counter-IED, cordon and search, unmanned aerial vehicle deployment and medical evacuation The convoy training also made great use of Croatian joint-tactical air controllers, who were attached to the Minnesota Soldiers as they operated throughout situational exercises

"When you account for the fact that this is the first time our guys have worked together with the Croatians-running the same mission and relying on each other-it's rather incredible how well we've done," said platoon leader, 2nd Lt Chad Malmberg "Everything has gone so smoothly with them There are times we've conducted training jointly with other US Army units, where it hasn't gone this smoothly, or where we haven't work this cohesively, this quickly I'm just really impressed with how our guys and the Croatians have performed together"

"Today's training was about IED clearance," said platoon leader, 2nd Lt Brendan Morrison "We're given a mission to go down a certain route, and we're told that there have been attacks there in recent days So we went down the road, and we came across some pretty heavy resistance"

"We've been working with the Croatians for at least four or five years now," Morrison said "We've had a person here in Croatia with them since 1996 Our relationship with the Croatian military is very strong They're our allies, and the more friends we have in this world the better"

Spc Brandon Grabau, squad automatic weapon gunner, said that training with Croatian counterparts has been beneficial and a good experience

"This is the first time I've ever worked with soldiers from another nation; actually this is the first time I've been out of the US," said Grabau "It's been pretty cool They have a very interesting culture, and I'm learning a lot It's a good thing because we get to see how they train; they can see how we train, and we both get to see the differences They might do some things better than we do, and we might do something better than they do If we can each learn something from the other that's an improvement; we both get better"

Both Wiens and Nakic agreed that the partnership and joint training exercises should continue into the future

"In any coalition, it doesn't matter who it is, you're better when you practice, it just makes both partners better," Wiens said

"In the future we must have more of these types of events," Nakic agreed "It's my point of view that it's very, very important for the Croatian Army and for units like mine I know that the American Army is the best partner for the Croatian Army"

The commanders both agreed that Immediate Response 11 and future combined training exercises will enable the pragmatic and advantageous partnership to mature, thereby providing a continued source of stability and security in the Balkans into the future

17 June, 2011
Story and photos by Staff Sgt Eric Jungels
34th Red Bull Infantry Division Public Affairs
Minnesota Army National Guard

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