WASHINGTON -- In April, the Army approved the first reciprocal exchange of general officers between France and the U.S.

In the coming months, Brig. Gen. Todd R. Wasmund and his family will relocate to Marseilles, France, where he will take on his new role as the deputy commander of the 3rd Division. Wasmund recently served as the deputy commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas.

French Brig. Gen. Hubert Cottereau has already relocated. He will move into his new position as the deputy commanding general with the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia.

The exchange between the U.S. and France was made possible through the U.S. Army Military Personnel Exchange Program, or MPEP, said Jon Lee, MPEP and Schools of Other Nations branch chief with Army G-3/5/7.

"The relationship with France is longstanding, even if the exchange is new. We can optimize our partnership and strengthen our alliance to improve coalition operations," Wasmand said.

Building relationships is vital to the exchange program, Lee said, adding the Army is looking to improve the program to bolster interoperability with allies and partners.

As a Department of Defense security cooperation program, MPEP was designed to fully integrate an Army officer or noncommissioned officer into a foreign military's chain of command, Lee said. Further, it provides foreign military members a chance to integrate with the U.S. Army, often serving in key positions throughout the force.

"Working with allies and partners is critical to understanding their culture and improving our language capabilities," Lee said. "The Army won't fully understand unless we send our Soldiers abroad and work with our allies and partners. These Soldiers deal with some of those cultural differences, which leads to trust and confidence in working with our allies and partners."

Assignments are generally two years but can last up to three years, Lee said. During that time, Soldiers and families that are assigned to a foreign unit are separated from the typical range of support found at U.S. military installations and neighboring communities.

"There could be some challenges with family if they don't speak the language and have to live on the economy," Lee said. "Army Service Component Commands perform the essential role in overseeing and providing administrative support for the MPEP personnel within their theater."

MPEP's long-standing history began in 1947, with the first and ongoing exchange between the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and Heroico Colegio Militar, the military academy in Mexico.

Over the years, the program has expanded to 17 countries, and includes longstanding exchange agreements with the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, to the more recent exchange agreements with France.

"We have the opportunity to join our partner nations and contribute to their operations," Wasmund said. "I'm grateful to the French government and the French army for entrusting me."

He said it gives the Army a great opportunity to achieve the objectives of the military exchange program.

DEFINING EXCHANGE AGREEMENTS

Exchange agreements between two counties are legally binding international agreements, which do not happen overnight, Lee said.

A change to the program in 2009 has allowed the Army to initiate both reciprocal and non-reciprocal exchanges with its allies and partners, Lee added. A non-reciprocal agreement allows foreign military personnel to operate as an exchange officer within the Army, without the mutual exchange of personnel.

Currently, there are several general officers holding deputy commanding general position throughout various ASCCs, corps and divisions, as well as interoperability staff officers on the Army staff, and instructors in multiple Centers of Excellence and schools.

While the numbers tend to fluctuate, the Army maintains around 46 non-reciprocal and close to 120 reciprocal exchanges, Lee said.

"Generally, there are two different ways to start the process," Lee said. "First, a partner nation initiates a request to exchange personnel within a certain organization. Second, a request for a partnership can come from Army command."

"The agreement process generally takes about one or two years," he said. "Then we go through the process of establishing the position, which requires a lot of coordination between the two countries and the units that will be affected."

Determining the correct rank, military occupational specialty, and qualifications for each MPEP position can also be a challenge, Lee added.

"Within an Army command, an exchange has to be feasible within their structure," Lee said. "This means a command will have to provide an officer or NCO to go overseas, in exchange for a member of a foreign military. The unit has to consider if this is possible."

To help, the MPEP team works closely with foreign military officials, Army service component commands, Army commands that will host the foreign exchange personnel and United States Army Human Resources Command to define the requirements of each position. G-3/5/7 will then approve establishment of each exchange position for execution as well as changes and terminations based periodic assessments.

For officers, the distribution of ranks accepted into the exchange program range from captain up to brigadier general. For NCOs, MPEP tends to focus on senior NCOs from staff sergeants and sergeants first class up to sergeants major within specific career fields.

Soldiers that meet the requirements set for each position can apply to the program. If necessary, Human Resource Command will coordinate any additional language training before their departure.

A CHANCE OPPORTUNITY

From 2016 to 2018, Maj. Gen. Douglas Crissman, now the director of the Mission Command Center of Excellence in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was the second general officer to exchange with the United Kingdom. During that time, he served as the deputy commanding general of the 3rd UK Division.

"After spending 28 years in my own Army, it was a unique and rewarding experience to then go spend two years in someone else's army," Crissman said. "I took it as a responsibility of mine to bring our armies closer together."

During his time with the U.K., Crissman helped make changes to their organizational structure and assisted in the development and implementation of new doctrine. While in his post, he brought the 3rd UK Division back to the U.S. for two major division-level warfighter exercises.

"It was a big deal," he said. "The British army had never participated in a U.S. warfighter exercise. The 3rd UK was assessed for their warfighting readiness in -- the same way our divisions are assessed."

The British are now exploring ways to replicate the warfighter experience in their army, he said.

"These relationships are significant when you consider it is unlikely we will ever fight alone," he added.

Similarly, Col. Kevin Baird, director of transportation with the deputy assistant secretary of defense for logistics, had a unique opportunity to serve with the Canadian Joint Operations Command, from 2011 to 2014.

Baird, an Army major at the time, was assigned to the J-5 Strategy, Plans, and Policy Office, where he helped manage domestic and international operations and provide logistics support.

"The large French-speaking population was a bit of a challenge when we first got there," he said. "My kids came back speaking French. So, for my family, it was a great opportunity to experience a foreign culture."

Operating as a full member of the Canadian Army, Baird had the chance to participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise and support NATO training missions in Afghanistan. He also deployed to Liberia during the Ebola outbreak to assist with humanitarian efforts.

"It was an incredible broadening opportunity," he said. "I was given jobs as if a Canadian officer sitting in that desk. The interoperability piece inherently contributes [to their operation]. As they are going through their planning process … we are embedded in their headquarters and can convey how the U.S. operates.

"Everything we do, from now and into the future, will likely involve partner nations. These MPEP positions and other programs like this are absolutely critical to our success."