sm210324-Z-ON199-1568Wisconsin National Guard State Partnership Program members and key Wisconsin National Guard leaders meet with gender equality leaders with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force for a virtual exchange on March 24, 2020. The meeting was set up to assist the Papua New Guinea Defence Force with their Women, Peace, and Security initiatives, specifically in the area of policy writing. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Katie Theusch

The Wisconsin National Guard learned last year it was selected for begin a State Partnership Program with Papua New Guinea, but the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have limited the in-person interaction between the two new partners to this point.

That hasn’t stopped them from finding ways to collaborate and exchange ideas.

Members of the Wisconsin National Guard met virtually with partners in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force to discuss military pregnancy policies and other challenges unique to women serving in the military.

The meeting was set up to assist the Papua New Guinea Defence Force with their Women, Peace, and Security initiatives, specifically in the area of policy writing. Women began to integrate into the Papua New Guinea Defence Force in 2013 and the force has been working to enhance gender equality ever since.

“Part of their culture over there is they’re really big on team building, working together and spending quality time together, whether that be work-related or not, and I think that maybe this is kind of one of those,” said 2nd Lt. Ellie Tadych, the state partnership program coordinator and gender advisor. “We’re not necessarily talking about doctrine or specifically military things, but the whole culture-wide issue that we face on a different scale than them, but we all still do.”

It is fitting to have these conversations with our partners during Women’s History Month, and also during a time when changes are being made to update policies affecting women in the military in the United States as well.

“It’s only the place that we’re born that separates us from us and them and the crazy difference in opportunities that it holds,” Tadych said.

The exchange holds special meaning for Tadych as a woman serving in the Wisconsin Army National Guard and having a role that could impact women across the globe.

“I think that part of being human is wanting a job that matters and brings fulfillment, and seeing a positive impact on other peoples’ lives is like, what else could be better?” Tadych said.

The main points of discussion during the virtual exchange was postpartum parental leave, duty restrictions while pregnant, and how support for pregnant women in the military affects retention and career progression.

sm210218-Z-A3612-1001Members of members of the Wisconsin National Guard State Partnership Program and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force meet for an initial discussion on gender goals and policies in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force Feb. 18. Submitted photo

Lt. Col. Shannon Hellenbrand, the Wisconsin National Guard’s full-time manning division chief who also has experience with writing pregnancy policies, encouraged the representatives from the Papua New Guinea Defence Force gender program to keep fighting for change and to remain patient, even when there is anger, frustration, and disappointment.

“All of those feelings feed my passion, so it’s not wrong that I’m feeling those things as I’m trying to empower and enable our organization, but you’re going to feel all of those things on a very frequent basis,” Hellenbrand said.

She added that there will be people they can rely on to remind them why they are fighting so hard in the first place.

“What I would just like to say is you have allies in all of us,” Hellenbrand said. “We are all here to help you along this journey.”

Lt. Col. Christina Schmoker, director of the Wisconsin National Guard Service Member Support Division, also shared insight on pregnancy policies, and recommended expanding the exchange to cover a wider array of topics and issues.

“It would make sense to pair [Papua New Guinea Defence Force members] up with like professionals,” Schmoker said. She added that the Wisconsin National Guard has similar jobs that align with the various positions women serve in in the Defence Force.

Maj. Nancy Wii, a gender equality leader with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, was grateful for the insight and open conversations, and hoped to continue the conversation further with future meetings.

“Thank you very much for your time,” Wii said. “We have a lot of stuff that we’ll have to discuss. Thank you so much for your participation. We hope to meet you again another time.”

Lt. Col. Derek Schultheiss, director of the Wisconsin National Guard’s state partnership program, agreed.

“I think these meetings that we’re having are great and I’d like to continue to do this,” Schultheiss said. “Obviously, even more so, we’d love to get over to Papua New Guinea and we’d love for all of you to come to Wisconsin, too. I think that as soon as COVID isn’t an issue anymore, I think we’ll have a lot of opportunities to do that.”