WASHINGTON (April 9, 2009) - A National Guard program has contributed to the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which grew by two more countries April 1.

Albania and Croatia, NATO's newest members, have been members of the National Guard's State Partnership Program for more than a decade.

Along with other initiatives such as NATO's own Partnership for Peace program, the National Guard's SPP helped the countries prepare for NATO membership, National Guard Bureau officials said.

Established in 1949 as a defense pact against the former Soviet Union and now 28-members strong, NATO celebrated its 60th anniversary April 4. A dozen countries founded NATO 60 years ago.

"We are very excited about your participation," President Obama told representatives of the new member countries. "We are proud to have you as allies."

Croatia's ambassador to the United States recently met with Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. They were joined by representatives from the Minnesota National Guard, Croatia's partner in the SPP.

"It's a fantastic relationship," McKinley said. "Minnesota/Croatia is a model program."

"We're very proud of Croatia, and the effort that they've made," said Brig. Gen. Timothy J. Cossalter, the adjutant general for Air for the Minnesota National Guard. "Croatia has really taken the task of wanting to join NATO and doing politically and militarily those things that are essential."

During meetings in Zagreb between senior Croatian and National Guard leaders last year, Croatian military leaders credited the SPP with helping the country win its invitation to full NATO membership.

Albania is partnered with the New Jersey National Guard. During a December visit to the state, Albanian Minister of Defense Gazmend Oketa said New Jersey provided critical assistance to help it reach its longstanding goal of NATO membership.

"The Albanian armed forces are proud of our achievements and we are proud to say we were not alone," Oketa told the Newark Star-Ledger. "The Albanian armed forces welcomed your help - and your friendship."

Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, adjutant general of the state, said Soldiers and Airmen from New Jersey had watched the Albanian defense forces blossom in the 15 years of their SPP partnership.

"The quality of the Albanian soldier is top tier," Reith said.

SPP activities include exchanges by high-level military and civilian leaders. Military-to-military contacts bring state National Guard members together with foreign troops. Military-to-civilian activities focus on homeland defense, homeland security and military support to civilian authorities, including disaster preparedness, emergency response and consequence management.

The partnerships can address a wide variety of shared security issues, including border security and migration, combat medical training, computer and financial crime, defeating improvised explosive devices, disaster response, humanitarian assistance, illegal drugs, military support to civilian authorities, peacekeeping operations, port security and weapons proliferation.

Civilian security exchanges often grow from the SPP, with increased contacts between U.S. and foreign businesses, educational institutions, farmers, doctors, lawyers and scientists.

Partnerships are created through discussions among countries, ministers of defense, the U.S. ambassador, regional combatant commanders, adjutants general, governors and the chief of the National Guard Bureau, which administers the SPP.

The SPP started in the Baltic region of Europe in 1993 after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and focused on matching U.S. states with former Soviet satellite nations. The SPP later expanded to South and Central America, Central Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific and Africa came next.

No SPP relationship has ended and none has failed since its inception 16 years ago.

"We're up to 61 state partnerships now," McKinley said. The newest: Texas and Chile partnered last month.

"In a time when Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates talks about building partnership capacity, it's very important for these relationships to grow, to mature," McKinley said.

"As many of our states know who've been in partnerships for 10 or 15 years, it's a wonderful way to meet, to befriend and to become totally integrated with our foreign partners," McKinley said. "I commend all of our states, all of our adjutants general for their work in maintaining and sustaining their partnerships, and especially to the states that have taken on a second partnership. That is very impressive to me, to see that they're not only doing their jobs at home and fighting the war overseas but also maintaining these great alliances."

(Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill serves with the National Guard Bureau.)