CHANTHABURI, Thailand (Army News Service, Feb. 4, 2009) -- After 24 hours of non-stop travel, 30 Soldiers from Hawaii stepped off their bus into the early morning light and, for the first time, saw the place they will call home for the next three weeks: A two-story schoolhouse at the end of a large, dusty quad spotted with a few meager trees.

Classrooms of the Ban Nong Buatong School in the Chanthaburi District of Thailand had been emptied of furniture and the Soldiers wearily carried their luggage to the cots with their names marked on the wall.

The Soldiers of the Hawaii Army National Guard's 230th Engineer Company, Vertical, were arriving to participate in "Cobra Gold" an annual joint, combined exercise hosted by the Kingdom of Thailand, running Jan. 24 to Feb. 11. The exercise is led by U.S. and Thai militaries and it focuses on maintaining and improving military interoperability among its participants, which include troops of Singapore, Indonesia and Japan.

The Hawaii Guard engineers were there to build a new classroom facility for the Ban Nong Buatong School serves a poor, rural community in the Chanthaburi District of Thailand. About 140 students, ranging from kindergarten to the sixth grade, attend the school.

The Guard engineers were joined in the project by 19 Thai troops from the Royal Thai Marine Engineer Battalion stationed out of Sattahip, Chonburi.

The Soldiers and Thai marines came together for a joint engineering civic assistance mission, but officials said they were also serving a larger purpose.

"While the building is important, the more important facet to the exercise is the joint, bilateral exchange between the U.S. and Thai forces," said Maj. Joe Laurel, Joint Civil Military Affairs Task Force, Humanitarian Civil Affairs, Officer in Charge, South.

"The school is just a venue that allows us to get together and work together," he continued. "The real importance is the interaction between Thai and U.S. personnel, which strengthens our bond between the two forces."

"The biggest challenge we have on the job site is the language," said 1st Sgt. Michael Lacno, a resident of Makawao, Hawaii. "But, the end result always comes out the same and the job gets done," Lacno added.

"From the very first day, there was an openness and a willingness to get the project done and learn from each other," said Pvt. 1st Class Michelle Almeida of Kihei, Hawaii.

"As we learn more words and gestures, and we get more familiar with each other, then it gets smoother," Almeida continued. "There is a whole lot of laughter going on because they laugh at some of the stuff we do, our hand gestures or facial expressions, while we try to communicate with each other."

By working on the common project, the Soldiers and Thai Marines engage in a true cultural exchange that is able to cross the language barrier between them.

"They'll come show us different tips," Almeida said as she recalled an incident that highlights how the two groups work together.

While driving nails for the framing crew, Almeida's hammer repeatedly slid off the nails. The hammer she was using had a smooth head, unlike a traditional carpenter's hammer that has a grit on the end to prevent slippage.

"One of the Thai marines came over and asked to see my hammer. He took it and ground down the rounded edge so it wouldn't slip," she said. "They are very aware of what's going on around them, and we are very aware of what's happening with them," she continued as she described the new relationship with the Thai marines.

Sgt. 1st Class Catherine Kula of Waipahu, Hawaii, said she enjoyed her experience working on a cement mixing crew with four Thai marines. "I wanted to get involved," Kula said. "They put me in charge of a mud detail. I couldn't ask for a better crew."

Kula formed a special bond with one of the Thai marines on the crew. "One of them adopted me! My 'new son' is 27 years old and he has a 2-year-old son. I've got a 27-year-old son and a 2-year-old grandson of my own," she said of her family in Hawaii.

The Soldiers and Thai marines also share experiences off the jobsite that deepen the developing friendship. Shared meals throughout the day offer an opportunity for both groups to sample traditional foods and laugh over the experiences of the day.

After a hard day's work, the engineers kick back and relax together. Jan. 29 marked Thai marine 1st Sgt. Sudtay Preawdang's 34th birthday. To celebrate, the Hawaii Soldiers introduced the Thai marines to a Hawaiian tradition: a Kani'kapila.

"A kani'kapila is like a jam session," said Spc. Andrew Kalaukoa of Makaha, Hawaii. According to Kalaukoa, two Soldiers played ukuleles and one Thai marine joined in with a guitar as the entire group around the bonfire sang songs.

"It was good fun. We were all there for the same reason: to bond," he said.