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Minnesota National Guard
Chainsaw diplomacy: MN National Guard helps restore Croatian community center

851st VEC RACINOVCI, Croatia - Soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard are demonstrating the power of the US military abroad - the power to heal

Members of the 851st Vertical Engineer Company are in the midst of a three-week deployment, working 15-hour days to repair a community center in the small village of Račinovci in Croatia, a southeastern European country that is bordered by Hungary to the north

Since mid-June, they have been working side by side with the Croatian army in a humanitarian mission to restore the 70-year-old building after it was heavily damaged by flooding

Račinovci is about a three-hour drive from the main Croatian city of Zagreb Since the town is small and remote, the community center serves a variety of different functions in the daily life of the villagers

Pfc Nathan Tomala said the close-knit community reminds him of his own hometown of Pierz Bemused townsfolk will stop to watch the soldiers haul lumber and construct beams

"It's like a big family," he said "You can definitely tell that they all love that we're here"

The Croatian farmers grow corn, soybeans and wheat, just like the crops of Minnesota, Tomala said Even deer stands can be seen among the trees

Sgt Matthew Dobias of Brainerd said the Croatian soldiers typically do building projects more often than the Americans, so the visitors have a wider learning curve than their Croatian counterparts, he said

"It's a little bit more of a learning experience for us, but we're catching on pretty quick," he said

Although an obvious language gap exists, the universal language of construction means the cultural difference doesn't pose much of a practical difficulty, Dobias said

Croatian Army 2nd Lt Damir Grizelj, officer-in-charge of the project, feels the same way

"I like working with the Americans," Grizelj said "We both have the common career of construction, so if even if the language barrier gets in the way, we eventually understand each other"

The American soldiers wear red hard hats and the Croatians wear yellow, but other than that it's difficult to tell the units apart in photos of the work being completed

However, the high level of cooperation doesn't mean the building job is a cake walk, Dobias said

"It's going nice and good," he said "Not nice and easy"

Sgt Andrew Bartkowicz of Little Falls said the Americans have had to get accustomed to sophisticated Croatian methods of carpentry, trying to restore the roof of the building to the antique design it held before the flood destroyed it Hand carving and fitted notch work that uses a minimal amount of nails makes the community center a work of art, he said Because supplies are minimal, there's little margin for error with each cut

The Croatians also have a fondness for using chainsaws where Americans would normally use easier methods, like a table saw or skill saw, he said

"Doing all these intricate cuts with a chainsaw, you've got to be really careful not to screw something up," he said

During their downtime, the American soldiers got to see a traditional festival; an expression of the community they had helped to rebuild There, too, they noticed similarities to home

"It kind of reminded me of a polka," Bartkowicz said

Bartkowicz is satisfied to know he's making an immense difference in the lives of the villagers One of the few words in Croatian the soldiers are familiar with is the word for "thank you" because the people of Račinovci say it to them often

"It's awesome, it's a great feeling," he said

July 4, 2015
Zach Kayser, Brainerd Dispatch
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