The importance of military-to-military partnerships and cooperation has been on display in recent weeks as the U.S. and partner nations work to combat the growing threat posed by extremist militants in the Middle East.
A group of Soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard has been hard at work building and strengthening similar relationships in the region since it deployed to Kuwait and Jordan last spring.
The 65 Soldiers of the 32nd Military Engagement Team and the 32nd Base Defense Operations left Wisconsin in February en route to the Middle East.
The BDOC Soldiers are responsible for mission command of security and camp operations at a facility in Kuwait. Meanwhile the military engagement team, headquartered partially in Kuwait and partially in Jordan, has been busy travelling throughout the region engaging with key military and government leaders, and in some cases, royalty.
Their work has taken on an added significance as tensions in the region have grown.
"The world is currently filled with conflict and confusion," said Col. David Monk, the commander for the two deployed units from the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. "The mission that the Soldiers of the 32nd MET are performing helps to bring clarity and understanding of the different cultures that are at odds with each other. Strategic leaders value the information that we provide and make decisions that may affect the countries where we are involved and possibly even the national security of the United States of America."
Monk, who deployed three times previously, said the nature of this mission distinguishes it from the others.
"My personal engagements with royalty have been the most unique experience I have ever had in my entire military career," he said.
The MET's travels has also taken the team to places like the Dead Sea, ancient villages and Roman ruins, Monk said. He also had an opportunity to see the pope when he visited Jordan.
The team has built relationships and partnerships in nine different countries thus far and may ultimately travel to as many as 18 in places like Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Tajikistan and Oman. The MET shares best practices, engages with U.S. and foreign military leaders in the region, foreign royalty and even members of Congress travelling through the region on state visits. Perhaps most importantly, their efforts are supporting the collective national security interests of the United States and positively impacting U.S. humanitarian aid efforts in Syria and Iraq.
Many of the Soldiers on the deployment have deployed previously or have years of experience operating at the tactical and operational level. For most, however, their current deployment is their first experience operating at a strategic level.
"Morale is very high and everyone understands how important the work that they are doing contributes to the various missions and the United States' foreign policy goals," Monk said.
Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Gaier, an operations non-commissioned officer with the MET, sees the big picture role his unit serves.
"Most Soldiers have full and fruitful careers working at the tactical and operational level and don't receive the opportunity to conduct missions at the strategic level allowing them to see the bigger picture or connect their specific duty with the operational picture," he said. "With our mission, we have to keep strategic goals in the forefront of our minds at all times when we are engaging with another country's military or civilian population."
That experienced gained at the strategic level will have a lasting impact on each of these Soldiers' careers, Monk said.
Besides the military experiences, the Soldiers will return to Wisconsin with a wide array of cultural experiences that will only help them grow as Soldiers and leaders. Gaier said being immersed in the various cultures they have visited broadens their understanding and facilitates their mission.
"When you go out and truly enjoy someone else's country and culture and develop a better understanding of it, it sets the stage for a meaningful, positive experience, which leads to one of our goals of building partner capacity," he said.
Ultimately those experiences are going a long way toward building positive face-to-face interactions between the United States and its partners.
"This mission puts a face, a name and an experience that connects the U.S. military directly to other countries," Sgt. 1st Class Natalie Koffarnus said. "It's the difference between getting a card in the mail on your birthday or having a party. Both are nice, but the party is more memorable."
The MET conducts an initial engagement with key leaders and then works to make sure that leads to follow-on engagements.
"We want there to be a series of engagements in our partner countries, not just a one-time date," Lt. Col. Brian Leahy said.
Leahy highlighted an engagement the MET conducted in Kazakhstan in June where the MET discussed peace-keeping operations with military Kazakh military leaders. Now the team is preparing for future engagements to discuss non-commissioned officer development with them.
Capt. Jesse Lewis, an intelligence officer, said he's learned that the military leaders in each nation have similar goals as the U.S. military - protecting their homes and families and ultimately making the world a better place. In that sense, he and other Soldiers said, it's easy to relate and find commonalities.
"We have a great team that is doing great things," Lewis said. "I am extremely proud to be a part of it. It is a once in a lifetime experience."
The Red Arrow Soldiers, some of whom also hail from the other major subordinate commands within the Wisconsin Army National Guard, have earned high praise for their work overseas.
"The performance of the individual members and the entire team is something that I am very proud of," Monk said. "The quality of this team continues to impress leaders and organizations that we interact with at all levels. It seems that wherever I go, I am congratulated for the positive impact that these leaders have had."
That's impressive for a unit that had never operated together prior to the deployment. Both the MET and BDOC were created solely for this deployment and pulled from a variety of commands around Wisconsin. Despite the initial lack of familiarity, the teams have bonded into tight-knit units.
The BDOC too has earned its share of admiration as it supports the MET while also running the day-to-day operations of multiple facilities in Kuwait. As tensions have risen in the region and troop configurations have changed, the BDOC faces a logistical challenges as they work to support service members moving in and out of Kuwait.
The deployment has posed its challenges though. Being separated from friends and family is always difficult no matter the mission, but the Soldiers have been able to keep in touch via the Internet and telephone. Many also mentioned the steady flow of care packages sent from family and friends back home.
They've also endured the height of the sweltering summer heat in Kuwait and Jordan. Despite the desert climate, the MET and BDOC has dealt with the high levels of humidity that accompany the 120 degree-plus heat in Kuwait.
"There are also bug seasons here," Koffarnus said. "When we got here it was big black beetles. Then it went to ants and then to locusts."
The unit left Wisconsin in late February before travelling to Fort Hood, Texas for pre-mobilization training. From there, they deployed to the Middle East. The unit is expected to return home sometime this winter.