CHISINAU, Moldova — With a brutal war raging in neighboring Ukraine and wary of nearby Russia, the Eastern European democracy of Moldova is rapidly strengthening its national defense — and looking to the North Carolina National Guard for help.
"In light of current events, Moldova sees the critical importance of their ability to defend their independence and sovereignty," Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson said after a recent visit there.
Hokanson's messages to Moldova: The National Guard is a proven long-term partner. We are here to assist any way we can. We will help you enhance your safety and security.
The chief of the National Guard Bureau led a U.S. defense delegation that included Army Maj. Gen. Todd Hunt, North Carolina's adjutant general, and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Benjamin Garner, his senior enlisted leader.
For Hokanson, Moldova was the first stop on a five-nation trip to recognize and strengthen National Guard relationships with NATO allies and European partners.
People lined sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the most senior U.S. military officer to visit the nation [Hokanson is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]. His schedule included meetings with the U.S. ambassador and embassy staff, Moldova's defense minister and chief of defense, and a briefing with the Moldovan equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Bordered to the north, east and south by Ukraine and to the est by Romania, Moldova is paired with North Carolina in the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program — an enduring relationship stretching back more than a quarter-century.
"You can tell the investment the North Carolina Guard has made in the partnership — and the investment Moldova has made in sending their officers to schools in the U.S. — has developed a great relationship," Hokanson said.
The visit gave North Carolina Guardsmen a chance to conduct one of their first in-person exchanges since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced almost two years of virtual engagements. The adjutant general talked with Moldovan soldiers who have been to his state or to a training rotation with the North Carolina Guard's 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, or Fort Bliss, Texas.
"My desire is we continue this strong partnership for another 25 years," Hunt said.
The National Guard partnership was the catalyst for Moldova to also develop strong relationships with North Carolina's civilian sector.
"The Guard is about citizen soldiers and airmen," Hunt said. "We're able to use the 'citizen' part to build relationships in the civilian sector. For example, North Carolina's medical and education sectors have been very beneficial in supporting Moldova."
In 2019, North Carolina's secretary of state and Moldova's prime minister renewed a five-year bilateral agreement that also includes agricultural, economic and law enforcement cooperation.
Garner's presence underlined the vital role of the noncommissioned officer corps in U.S. military success.
"They see how important the noncommissioned officer is to the U.S. Army and how much of a difference a strong NCO corps has made for the Ukrainian Army," Hokanson said. "They see great value in having leaders at the lowest levels in their formations."
Moldova continues to enhance the role of its NCOs. As in all State Partnership Program relationships, knowledge never flows in only one direction.
"It's a bilateral partnership that allows us to learn from Moldova," Garner said.
Training with the Moldovans and visiting the country is a growth opportunity for North Carolina National Guardsmen, he said. It gives younger troops a broader, geopolitical perspective — and it's a great retention tool.
"It's really what people join the armed forces for, to get out into the world and interact with others," Garner said. "What you see on the posters — what I joined for — you get to do that through the State Partnership Program."
It's not only knowledge that flows both ways. Moldovan National Army members have served with United Nations peacekeeping operations, supported the international coalition in Iraq, and repeatedly contributed to NATO missions in Kosovo. They have shared experiences with the North Carolina National Guard.
Security cooperation is the priority. But the partners also learn from each other in domestic disaster response operations — support to civilian authorities that's made possible by equipping and training for military missions.
The Moldovan National Army is transforming to a modern, mobile force, and Hokanson attended the opening of a military vehicle maintenance facility U.S. money helped build. "It should greatly increase their ability to maintain all of their systems, which is going to improve readiness," he said.
He also praised Moldovans for their substantial, ongoing effort to help Ukrainian refugees despite Moldova's own economic challenges. A small country with a huge heart, Moldova has welcomed more Ukrainians per capita than any other nation.
"It's a whole-of-society effort," the general said. "Not only is the government working through nongovernmental organizations to help refugees, but Moldovan families are taking in refugees to help support them until they can return to Ukraine, stay, or decide to travel to Europe. In some cases, the military has left their installations to allow refugees to stay, and they've gone to the field to train."
The European Union offered both Moldova and Ukraine candidacy status during Hokanson's overseas trip.
After Moldova, Hokanson traveled to Germany, where he met with U.S. European Command, U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Army Europe leaders. He also met with National Guardsmen training Ukrainian troops, including some troops who were deployed to Ukraine immediately before Russia's unprovoked invasion earlier this year.
"Their mission of training the Ukrainians continues, particularly as the Ukrainians field more capable military equipment from the United States," Hokanson said.
He also visited Vermont National Guardsmen flying F-35 Lightning multirole fighter jets out of Germany to reassure U.S. allies and partners by supporting a NATO mission defending the skies of Europe.
He continued to the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where he reinforced the importance of three-decade security partnerships with those countries and the Maryland, Michigan and Pennsylvania National Guards.
"They were the first three partnerships we had in the State Partnership Program," he noted.
As the program prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, some 93 countries — 46 percent of the world's countries — are now partnered with National Guards in the states, territories and District of Columbia.
"It's mutually beneficial," Hokanson said of the program. "We learn from each other. It makes us both better. It makes us stronger together in an increasingly complex and challenging international security environment."