By Capt. Megan HoffmannMay 9, 2017
CHEYENNE, Wyo. - In the early 90s, the Department of Defense elevated the National Guard-managed State Partnership Program. The goal was to connect National Guard units from each state with a partner nation in hopes of establishing a mutually beneficial civil-military affairs.
After a National Guard unit was paired with a partner nation, they would assist them with tasks such as engineering, military personnel training and development, aviation, security and disaster preparedness. The Wyoming National Guard and Tunisia partnership is now just one of 73 partnerships that has formed since 1993.
The 2004 Wyoming-Tunisia pairing wasn't incidental. The process is akin to a dating website, which asks someone a host of questions with the overall goal of matching people who share similar interests, goals and lifestyle choices.
The SPP looks at the particular National Guard unit, to include their size, location and mission, and then analyzes that information in order to determine which partner nation might be the best match for that particular state's National Guard unit(s). Tunisia and Wyoming have many commonalities: climate, economy and military equipment, both having C-130s, UH-60s and field artillery.
In 2016, the Wyoming National Guard began the Humanitarian Mining Action mission, a SPP-leveraged program, in Tunisia. The HMA is a Department of Defense program that provides education and training in finding, clearing and securing land mines and other explosive remnants of war.
"We get to help Tunisia develop the skill set to remove mines on their own," said Capt. Michael McGee, director for the Wyoming National Guard State Partnership Program.
"Right now as part of the HMA, we are helping Tunisia build a schoolhouse, which will allow them to have a place to train their own personnel on finding and clearing various types of mines or other explosive materials," said McGee.
Soldiers and Airmen with the Wyoming National Guard don't conduct the actual finding and removal of explosives, nor do they build facilities or carry out engineering projects for the Tunisians. They simply act as facilitators, advising them on how to present explosive ordnance disposal lesson material and build their own facilities so that when Wyoming Soldiers and Airmen leave the country, the Tunisians are able to complete various engineering projects and instruct EOD courses on their own accord.
"If our engineers construct buildings or complete projects for them, not much learning occurs. However, if we show up and advise them on how to develop specific training areas, such as digging training lanes and filling them with different kinds of material so that they can bury fake landmines and learn how to safely and effectively find and neutralize them, then they learn a great deal more. It's all about enabling and empowering them to learn these tasks on their own so they become better at what they do," McGee said.
The Wyoming National Guard has several three-person teams, all engineers from the 133rd Engineer Company, based out of Laramie and Rock Springs, Wyoming, to complete HMA missions where they will assist and advise the Tunisians how to construct buildings or training areas. The task of the three-person team is to complete a given HMA mission, start to finish, during their allotted two-week timeframe.
The 2016 HMA missions consisted of building lanes - training areas about 10 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 75 feet long, filled with various materials such as gravel, sand and top soil. Using those training lanes, instructors teach the Tunisians how to find, neutralize and secure various types of landmines and improvised explosive devices.
"Last year when we were there developing lanes with them, it actually came up that the Tunisians were interested in training their people to clear culverts from explosive hazards. So, based on that development, this last project centered around building a culvert to use as a training lane to clear hazards," said McGee.
The culvert work started at the end of March and ran through the beginning of April 2017. 2nd Lt. Eric Jacobs, Sgt. 1st Class Cindy Johnson and Sgt. 1st Class Steven Hiser were the personnel who went over to assist with the project.
"It's definitely an experience. It was my first time out of the country. I knew what to expect because many of our 133rd Soldiers have been to Tunisia helping with various projects," said Jacobs, engineer platoon leader. "Our main effort was putting in a culvert so they could do explosive hazards clearing of their culverts. The culvert wasn't meant for actual drainage but they wanted it there so they could train their EOD guys and infantry guys on how to deal with those when they come across them."
Building classrooms, constructing culverts and instructing the Tunisians on various projects isn't the only mission of the Wyoming personnel while in Tunisia.
"We did two events last year, already did two this year and have two more planned for the remainder of this year. We are helping them develop the skills they need to keep themselves and their community safe. Helping them become better at neutralizing hazards is what our goal is," said McGee.
"Although the Tunisians are enormously grateful for the training we provide, more than anything, they value the relationship aspect of us being over there. Over 13 years, we have built that trust with them. It's cool to have built relationships like that."