HARTFORD, Conn. - Smiles, laughter, and jokes permeated throughout a room in the Hartford Armory as seven members of the 192nd Engineer Battalion met with state partnership program director, Maj. Nick Raphael, to complete an after-action report for their recent trip to Uruguay.
The team conducted Counter-IED (improvised explosive device) training with the Uruguayan Army in Montevideo, Uruguay, July 15-25, 2022, as part of a bilateral exchange between the two partners.
“It was awesome to see this side of the Guard,” said Staff Sgt. Nathan Carrasquillo, a communication specialist assigned the 192nd. “We’re not just the Connecticut National Guard. When we were over there, we were representing the U.S., we were representing the U.S. Army, we were filling a bigger role. We were doing something a lot bigger than ourselves. We were literally fostering a friendship with another nation, a partner nation, to show them that we care about them, they care about us. We are the same, we have a lot of similarities.”
The group worked with Uruguayan Army instructors and a diverse rank structure of more than 30 Uruguayan Soldiers preparing to deploy to Africa and Syria in support of U.N. peacekeeing missions. The Soldiers were mostly non-commissioned officers and junior officers, representing artillery, infantry, scuba divers, K-9 handlers, engineers, and armor specialties, with the goal of training the trainers.
Setting learning conditions right up front was critical for Master Sgt. Ernesto Rios-Soto, team non-commissioned officer in charge, who said during the introduction that they were there to collectively exchange information and learn from everyone’s experiences, saying, “we are here to show you a way to do things, not the way to do things, and this is going to be collectively led, not us telling you. We are going to learn from you as much you learn from us. It’s a group effort and we’re going to learn together.”
The first two days of the exchange involved classroom education and the last three days were training lanes (practical exercises) in the field. The class was divided into two teams that maneuvered along a two-mile lane, reacting to IEDs and ambushes along the path, following an iterative series of progressively more difficult challenges that fit into the overall notional mission.
“We shared our experiences and knowledge of IED placement, what to look out for, indicators, the five C’s (check, confirm, clear, cordon and control,)” said Sgt. Ismael Gutierrez, a combat engineer and heavy equipment operator assigned to the 250th Engineer Company. “You find it, then what? You’ve got to clear it and go through the whole process of what to do about the IED once it is found. The first day we snailed it, the second day we did a crawl, a mini-walk, then the last day – full send.”
The group from the 192nd Engineers brought plenty of real-life experience to the exchange.
“I joined in 2009 and was active duty going on two combat deployments with my Fort Drum-based unit,” said Gutierrez. “We were training up for Sapper school, so they made sure I knew a lot about explosives, demo (calculations) and all that. On my second deployment we did route clearance, so I became very familiar and hands-on with high explosives.”
Uruguay is the largest per capita contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations, so the exchange had tangible benefits that could save lives.
“It was a mix of experience levels. Most of them knew zero about counter-IED, that was like a totally new topic to them,” said Rios-Soto. “They do peacekeeping operations all the time and they have never really been exposed to this type of threat in the places they’re used to going, such as the Congo. Now being in Syria, the threat (of IEDs) is more real when they’re doing their patrols. So, I went back a little bit and explained about our [tactics, techniques, and procedures], about how we came up with this in 2003 and how we learned this way, sadly through experience, and we want to share this with you guys. I told our team that you’re going to learn when you teach and I know that we’re saving lives. I put a lot of this together from experience from last year’s exchange and I really put my heart into this thing and a lot of work.”
Rios-Soto continued, “There was a guy at the daily (after-action review) and he said ‘I want to be honest with you, when they told me to go do counter-IED training, I didn’t want to go, I didn’t know what it was or why I needed it, but now I don’t want to stop. I’m so glad I’m here.’ We never stopped working, even when we were off, we were planning for the next day. In the field, we were up by 6 a.m. then we were doing day and night operations so by the time we got back it was 10 or 11 p.m.”
When asked about what Guard Soldiers and Airmen should know about Uruguay’s and Connecticut’s State Partnership Program, Rios-Soto emphatically said, “it is a work trip. I want to break the stigma about going to Uruguay for State Partnership Program missions being a vacation. You do have a good time, but it’s more work than we normally do during annual training. The participants were eager for knowledge, and they always wanted more, more, more so we constantly made ourselves available to them during every phase of training and during the little down time we did get. We did have a good time and we did enjoy the culture, they treated us really, really well, but it is work.”
Bilateral exchanges take on many different forms and the virtual engagements during the COVID-19 pandemic were important, but face-to-face interaction is more effective. The State Partnership Program has welcomed returning to in-person events that can take on more substantive topics such as counter-IED.
“For me, it really matters,” said Rios-Soto. “It’s bigger than me, or our battalion, or Connecticut. It’s an international mission, I’m very proud to do this mission and I will do it anytime, as many times as I can, because I feel like it makes a difference.”
The reason for the smiles, jokes, and laughter is clear now - the throughline among each of the team members that visited Uruguay was a sense of pride and purpose in something they believe makes a difference.