DURRES, Albania--Five New York Army National Guard officer candidates spent April 10 to 24 in Albania, honing their leadership skills with their counterparts from the Albanian Armed Forces Academy.
“Training with the Albanian officer candidates was a really great experience,” said Officer Candidate Katherine Murrell. “There were challenges with communication. But they weren’t as big as I thought they would be.”
The training, said Officer Candidate Jason Frantz, “surpassed all my expectations.”
The five officer candidates enrolled in the 106th Regional Training Institute Officer Candidate School, or OCS for short, and New York six cadre members, were invited to Albania for the training by the New Jersey Army Guard OCS program.
Seventeen New Jersey officer candidates, and six New Jersey OCS cadre participated in the training, which took place near the city of Durres on the Adriatic coast.
The New Jersey National Guard has a State Partnership Program relationship with Albania and New Jersey’s 1st Battalion, 254th Training Regiment, has been working with the Albanians to improve that nation’s officer training program, according to Lt. Col. Stuart Loy, the training regiment’s commander.
New Jersey sent their officer candidates to train in Albania in 2022, Loy said. This year he wanted to expand the effort as the next step in the process, so he invited New York to participate, Loy said.
His goal is to expand the number of countries participating in this annual training event, Loy said. He wants to invite the New York Army National Guard again in 2024, along with another state OCS, and hopefully another NATO country, Loy explained.
Sgt. 1st Class Everitt Speros, the New York OCS course manager, said he was pleasantly surprised by how good the training was.
“I thought it would be a little too much dog and pony,” Speros said. “I was worried that the training was going to be dumbed down and not as intensive and I was worried the candidates would not get a lot out of it.”
Instead, said the veteran of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry’s fight for Route Irish in Baghdad during the Iraq War, the training was excellent.
“No candidates have had more squad tactical lane reps,” Speros said.
“Each candidate did close to 30 squad lanes in April. This is enormous and gives them a tremendous leg up,” he added.
They got plenty of chances to go through troop leading procedures, deliver an operations order, and lead a squad, Speros said.
Murrell and Frantz both said that the repeated opportunities to run the tactical problems really helped them learn.
“It was a lot of fun when we started to figure out how to coordinate everything,” Frantz said.
The opportunity to work with troops from another NATO country was also invaluable, said Capt. Edwin Ponce, one of the OCS training officers.
“It gave them a little bit of a taste of what they will be doing in the real world once they get commissioned as lieutenants,” Ponce said.
The New York and New Jersey National Guard officer candidates and 37 Albanian academy cadets in their second year of training, were integrated into squads together.
“It was a little challenging for them, in the sense of the language barrier, especially when it came time to plan and execute training,” Ponce said.
The language barrier was a challenge, Murrell said, but both the Americans and Albanians managed to work things out.
Some Albanians spoke excellent English and could translate, she said, and others spoke enough to get by. And when it came time for the tactical exercises, they used signs to communicate as well, she said.
The training focused on five exercises, Speros said. The officer candidates and cadets had to conduct a movement to contact, conduct a squad attack, knock out a bunker, set up an ambush, and react to an ambush.
The trainees were given a platoon order and then put together their squad operations orders, he said.
On a Friday night to Sunday training weekend, each officer candidate would get to be a squad leader twice, Speros. On this training mission they were getting a chance to lead twice a day.
“They got a tremendous amount of reps and a tremendous amount of one-on-one attention,” Speros said.
The Albanian Armed Forces Academy commander and Albania’s Chief of Defence both visited the training to observe. This, Loy said, would be like having the head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visiting.
The Albanians, Speros said, “were thirsty to learn.”
The Albanian military was originally based on Russian models of command. Now they are trying to incorporate western military leadership styles, Loy explained.
Training with American National Guard troops helps them do that, he said.
The trip was not all work.
The Americans visited the city of Durress, Albanian’s second largest city, and took part in a staff ride discussing the military history of the region. The coastal city has been a gateway for invaders, including the 1939 invasion by Italy during World War II.
Including the New York Army National Guard team in this year’s Albanian training rotation helped make the training more successful, Loy said.
“The dynamic cross talk and training between programs, adding the New York Army Guard perspective and experience to the New Jersey program proved a key part of the mission success,” Loy said.
“In all honesty, I believe that was the key to the training being so successful,” he added.