SKOPJE, Macedonia -- The National Guard takes a long-term view of its partnerships with more than one-third of the world's countries, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel said during visits to three countries in the Western Balkans this week."We're in this for the long game," the chief of the National Guard Bureau told host country leaders during stops in Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Lengyel's mission: Strengthen the enduring State Partnership Program (SPP) relationships and underscore the USA's commitment to the region's security and stability.Founded in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a quarter-century ago, the SPP has steadily grown, from a handful of countries in the former Eastern Bloc to 83 in every geographic combatant command and on every continent except Antarctica.The program pairs the National Guard in the states and territories and the District of Columbia with a foreign partner. Some states have more than one partner. It strengthens national security, including by contributing to the National Defense Strategy goal of building partnerships.Macedonia is paired with the Vermont National Guard, Albania with the New Jersey National Guard, and Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Maryland National Guard. The Balkan region falls within the U.S. European Command area of responsibility. The SPP supports combatant commander objectives."These partnerships contribute to the power and capability of both the host country and the National Guard," Lengyel said.Both China and Russia are increasing efforts to exert influence in the Balkans. Cyber has emerged as a new domain. And the region's countries are all striving to improve responses to disasters such as wildfires, floods and earthquakes.The only way to get at the challenges we face is to become stronger as partners, as allies, and as friends," Lengyel told one group of military officers during a stop on his visit. The general and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, senior enlisted advisor, met with key leaders and host nation and U.S. troops during the trip and saw demonstrations of host country military capabilities.Among examples of the SPP's impact in the Western Balkans:
* Helped Albania become a NATO member, strengthening the alliance -- and Lengyel expressed the USA's support for both Macedonia's and Bosnia and Herzegovina's continued progress along the path to NATO membership.
* 5,000 members of the Army of the Republic of Macedonia have taken part in joint activities with U.S. troops. All three countries have seen hundreds of troops take part in dozens of small- to large-scale events, ranging from a dozen noncommissioned officers exchanging best practices to a thousand troops or more conducting joint training.
* All three nations have co-deployed to places such as Afghanistan and Iraq with U.S. troops, strengthening coalition forces and demonstrating international resolve.
* The nations have transitioned from being security consumers to security providers -- for example, donating weapons and ammunition to coalition partners defeating ISIS.
* About 1,600 Pennsylvania National Guard members are scheduled to join a joint exercise with Macedonian troops this year.The primary reserve of the Army and the Air Force, the National Guard comprises about 25 percent of all personnel serving in the Armed Forces. The National Guard supports the National Defense Strategy by fighting America's wars, securing the homeland and building enduring partnerships. About 30,000 Guard members are deployed worldwide today; about 10,000 are supporting domestic missions.Lengyel is the 28th Chief of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He ensures the 450,000 Army and Air National Guard Soldiers and Airman are accessible, capable and ready to protect the homeland and to provide combat forces to the Army and the Air Force.The most senior enlisted member of the National Guard, Kepner is the chief's principal military advisor on all enlisted matters affecting training, utilization, health of the force, and enlisted professional development.