As part of a two-week border mission, Maj. Robert “Mike’’ Thorlin of the Arizona National Guard traveled to 12 sites.
Thorlin helped provide security assistance to screen incoming baggage for drugs and explosives. He just did not perform his duties anywhere near the Mexican border.
“It was absolutely fascinating,’’ Thorlin said. “I got to stand about as close to the Russian border as I’m going to in today’s political environment.’’
Thorlin is based in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, as part of the State Partnership Program (SPP), which pairs National Guard units in every state, three U.S. territories and the District of Columbia with a foreign country. The National Guard Bureau administers the program.
Some units are partnered with two nations. In all, 82 countries are involved.
“We have been fortunate to learn other countries’ methods of dealing with natural disasters, emergency response, cyber defense, national security, counterterrorism, military aid, engineering activities and tactics,’’ said Air Force Maj. Kingsley Okoli, deputy division chief of the National Guard Bureau’s J-53 international affairs division.
Beginning of the SPP
The State Partnership Program began in 1993 to assist former Baltic states as they emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. This year, three countries were added: Egypt (which was paired with the Texas State Guard), Papua New Guinea (Wisconsin National Guard) and Timor-Leste (Rhode Island National Guard), a nation in Southeast Asia.
With 15-25 engagements annually not uncommon — a typical event lasts about five days — National Guard units and their partners exchange information frequently. They usually share common interests. For instance, the Hawaii National Guard has exchanged best practices with the Philippines and Indonesia on natural disaster preparedness and humanitarian relief. (The Philippines is also a state partner with the Guam National Guard).
“From the early days, when I was a lieutenant all the way up until now, I’ve been focused on my craft, just growing up as an infantryman and then eventually an intel guy,’’ Lt. Col. Brandon Torres of the Hawaii National Guard said. “Now that we’re branching out a little bit, it gives more [about] the diplomacy of it all, the international relations, the grand scheme of strategy throughout the Pacific.’’
The Puerto Rico National Guard began a partnership with Honduras in 1998 and the Dominican Republic in 2003. First Lt. Jose Berrios traveled to Honduras this year as part of an engagement regarding how to combat forest fires.
“We are Hispanic, right? Both places,’’ Berrios said. “When we talk with them, it’s like we talk with some friends, some people like you.’’
Maj. Kimberly Quinn of the Florida National Guard also has experienced the State Partnership Program firsthand. Florida is partnered with Guyana in South America and a group of Eastern Caribbean island nations referred to as the Regional Security System (RSS), and Quinn became involved with the SPP initially to fight sexual assault and domestic violence.
Now the conversations are much different.
“There are so many challenges that we experienced within 2020,’’ Quinn said. “We’re not alone in those challenges, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s civil disturbance, whether it’s peaceful protest or elections. Our partner nations have the same challenges, and so that shared understanding helps us see problems in a different light and develop creative solutions that make our world a safer place.’’
Fifteen SPP countries have deployed alongside their National Guard partners in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the National Guard Bureau. Okoli cited two other examples that resonate, especially in light of today’s headlines. Romania dispatched medical professionals to Alabama to help with the COVID-19 response, and the Maryland National Guard has bolstered its cybersecurity measures by learning from its partner, Estonia, Okoli said.
Congress appropriated $20 million to $25 million to the National Guard Bureau for the 2020 fiscal year to run the State Partnership Program, Okoli said. (The program has other funding sources.) Sixty-three bilateral affairs officers are involved with the SPP, including Thorlin.
He has been in Kazakhstan for a little more than 1½ years, and he recently received a six-month extension that will keep him there until at least the spring of 2021.
“The relationships that [the Kazakhstanis] build with Arizona National Guardsmen, not just in a two-week or a one-week engagement but over the course of several years …,’’ Thorlin said. “They might go back annually and meet some of the same people that they had met seven years ago and built relationships with and drank toasts with, and they got introduced to eating Mexican food and we got introduced to eating horse meat.
“It’s a really rewarding, very fascinating way to spend your time.’’
For more information about the State Partnership Program, visit the National Guard website.