In the early nineties the Department of Defense stood up the National Guard-managed State Partnership Program whose goal was to connect NG units from each state with a partner nation in hopes of mutually beneficial civil-military affairs.
After a NG unit was paired with a partner nation, they would assist them with tasks such as: engineering, military personnel training and development, aviation, security, and disaster preparedness. The Wyoming National Guard and Tunisia partnership is now just one of 73 partnerships that has formed since 1993.
The 2004 Wyoming-Tunisia pairing wasn’t incidental. The process is akin to that of a dating website which asks someone a host of questions with the overall goal of matching people who share similar interests, goals and lifestyle choices. The SPP looks at the particular NG unit, to include their size, location and mission, and then analyzes that information in order to determine which partner nation might be the best match for that particular states NG unit(s). Tunisia and Wyoming have many commonalities: climate, economy and military equipment – with both having C-130s, UH-60s and field artillery.
In 2016, the WyNG commenced the Humanitarian Mining Action mission, a SPP-leveraged program, in Tunisia. The HMA is a Department of Defense program that provides education and training in finding, clearing and securing land mines and other explosive remnants of war.
“We get to help Tunisia develop the skill set to remove mines on their own,” said Capt. Michael McGee, director for the Wyoming National Guard State Partnership Program.
“Right now as part of the HMA we are helping Tunisia build a schoolhouse which will allow them to have a place to train their own personnel on finding and clearing various types of mines or other explosive materials,” said McGee.
Soldiers and airmen with the WyNG don’t conduct the actual finding and removal of explosives, nor do they build facilities or carry out engineering projects for the Tunisians. They simply act as facilitators, advising them on how to present explosive ordinance disposal lesson material and build their own facilities so that when Wyoming soldiers and airmen leave the country, the Tunisians are able to complete various engineering projects and instruct EOD courses on their own accord.
“If our engineers construct buildings or complete projects for them, not much learning occurs. However, if we show up and advise them on how to develop specific training areas, such as digging training lanes and filling them with different kinds of material so that they can bury fake landmines and learn how to safely and effectively find and neutralize them, then they learn a great deal more. It’s all about enabling and empowering them to learn these tasks on their own so they become better at what they do,” said McGee.
The WyNG has several three-person teams, all engineers from the 133rd Engineer Company, based out of Laramie and Rock Springs, Wyoming, to complete HMA missions where they will assist and advise the Tunisians how to construct buildings or training areas. The task of the three-person team is to complete a given HMA mission, start to finish, during their allotted two-week timeframe.
The 2016 HMA missions consisted of building lanes – training areas about 10’ wide, 3’ deep and 25 meters long, filled with various material such as gravel, sand and top soil. Using those training lanes, instructors teach the Tunisians how to find, neutralize and secure various types of landmines and improvised explosive devices.
“Last year when we were there developing lanes with them, it actually came up that the Tunisians were interested in training their people to clear culverts from explosive hazards. So, based on that development, this last project centered around building a culvert to use as a training lane to clear hazards,” said McGee.
The culvert work started at the end of March and ran through the beginning of April 2017. 2nd Lt. Eric Jacobs, Sgt. 1st Class Cindy Johnson and Sgt. 1st Class Steven Hiser, all from the 133rd, were the personnel who went over to assist with the project.
“It’s definitely an experience. It was my first time out of the country. I knew what to expect because many of our 133rd soldiers have been to Tunisia helping with various projects,” said Jacobs, engineer platoon leader with the 133rd.
“Our main effort was putting in a culvert so they could do explosive hazards clearing of their culverts. The culvert wasn’t meant for actual drainage but they wanted it there so they could train their EOD guys and infantry guys on how to deal with those when they come across them,” said Jacobs.
Building classrooms, constructing culverts and instructing the Tunisians on various projects isn’t the only mission of the WyNG personnel while in Tunisia.
“The work was good, but getting to know those soldiers over lunch and talking to them about their outside jobs and families – they love talking about their families and hearing about ours – that’s the best part by far. I could put them in a culvert in Wyoming with our guys and it’d be the same work as we do in Tunisia, but it’s just better being over there and building those relationships with the Tunisians,” said Jacobs.
“We did two events last year, already did two this year and have two more planned for the remainder of this year. We are helping them develop the skills they need to keep themselves and their community safe. Helping them become better at neutralizing hazards is what our goal is,” said McGee.
“I really like sending people who haven’t been overseas or deployed. Once they get over there, they tell me how great it was to work with the Tunisians. I think there is some goodness to meeting another culture and realizing how they function. By the end of the two weeks, the Wyoming solider and Tunisian soldiers are making jokes and talking about their families and teaching each other sayings from each other’s culture. It’s just really fun to be a part of that,” McGee added.
“Although the Tunisians are enormously grateful for the training we provide, more than anything, they value the relationship aspect of us being over there. Over 13 years, we have built that trust with them. It’s cool to have built relationships like that,” said McGee.