YAVORIV, Ukraine -- Members of the California National Guard are participating in Exercise Rapid Trident 2013 because of the 20-year relationship they have built with the Ukrainian army through the National Guard State Partnership Program.

The SPP was originally planned for Reserve component Soldiers and Airmen until the National Guard Bureau proposed matching each U.S. state with former-Soviet nations in Eastern Europe, according to the National Guard's website. California and Ukraine became partners in 1993 when the program started. Today, 50 U.S. states, two territories and the District of Columbia are partnered with more than 60 countries around the world.

"I have been coming here since 2002 and I have seen the country grow since we first started," said Master Sgt. Christopher Lopez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Guard's contingent.

While Rapid Trident 2013 is not an official-SPP mission, the California National Guard's participation in support of the exercise strengthens their relationship with Ukraine, according to Lopez.

This year the Guardsmen are acting as observers for the multinational battalion consisting of a mostly-Ukrainian staff, advising the unit on best practices.

"On one hand we are supporting the exercise, but the SPP is part of another broader program that supports military-to-military relationships," said Lt. Col. Stanley Zezotarski, the senior officer in the Guard's contingent.

Rapid Trident 2013 is a U.S. Army Europe-led, multinational field training and command post exercise occurring at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Yavoriv July 8-19 that involves approximately 1,300 troops from 17 nations. The exercise is designed to enhance interoperability between forces and promote regional stability and security.

Partnerships have been built through an exchange program that brings citizens from Ukraine to California and vice versa. Ukrainians travel to California to observe economic programs, local and state government and the U.S. border system according to Zezotarski.

Experts have advised California farmers on best methods for crop production. Teachers from California have traveled to Ukraine to teach in schools.

Zezotarski says that California is lucky to be partnered with Ukraine because of there are many similarities, including having a diverse economy, especially in agriculture.

The program has also built strong military to military relationships.

"Since I have started I have seen some of the same people over and over again," Lopez said. "I have even gotten emails on our holidays wishing happy holidays from some of the senior officers here. It's always a pleasure when I see them in the airport and they shake my hand and give me a hug."

The program has helped resolve formerly-adversarial Cold War sentiments.

"One of the things I remember the most from being here was a toast between the Ukrainian generals and the National Guard generals," Zezotarski said. "The Ukrainian toast was 'it is better that we look at each other through the bottom of our wine glasses then through the sights of our rifles.'"

The California Army National Guard will also participate in a humanitarian-assistance project along with visiting Army Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets to renovate a pre-school building in the nearby town of Starychi.