News: Minnesota, Croatian Battalion Commanders on the importance of partnership during exercise Immediate Response
Story by Todd Oliver
SLUNJ, Croatia - As platoons from the Minnesota Army National Guard and the Croatian army practice their common infantry skills, another group of U.S. and Croatians, comprised mainly of senior officers and non-commissioned officers, has come together in Zagreb for the first time to link the two armies at a higher level.
“This is the first time that we’ve done both a company- and battalion-level combined exercise,” said Lt. Col. Mark Wiens, commander of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry from Minnesota. “It’s really amazing that we’re operating at this level. You can’t do this kind of thing over the phone or with a video teleconference. It’s not just what is said and done during the exercise. It’s the chance to bond, to share stories and to talk about both our experiences. That’s the key, sharing with our brother’s in arms. It’s about building the relationship we have both as soldiers and as members of NATO.
“The overall theme of the exercise is counterinsurgency,” Wiens continued. “It’s the operating environment we’re working in, based on an Afghan type scenario. The end state, what I hope we get out of this, is a deeper appreciation of our coalition partners and a better understanding of their capabilities. I hope we, the U.S., gain a better understanding of the Croatian army battalion’s operating techniques, tactics and procedures, both in the field and in the headquarters.”
His counterpart, Lt. Col. Zeliko Nakic, commander of the 2nd Motorized Battalion, known to the Croatian military as the "Spiders," agreed.
“I believe my soldiers and my staff will have a very positive experience during this exercise,” Nakic said. “I think that afterward we will all be more educated about each other and ready for the next mission.”
Both commanders went on to explain that as the training here progresses, the companies that are maneuvering through the training area will exchange platoon-sized elements, further challenging each other to operate together.
“When the training moves from the situational type training into the field-training exercise, a platoon from each company will be assigned to the other nation’s company, so it will become a combined company. This is the first time we’ve done that. I’m very excited about the possibilities, not just the bonding and sharing of war stories, but actually going through the techniques, tactics and procedures,” Wiens said.
This combined operation becomes more important because both battalions have soldiers that are currently operating together in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force’s observer mentor liaison teams. These teams, referred to as OMLTs, work with the Afghan military as teachers and guides, helping the Afghans improve with the eventual goal of self-sufficiency. In order to make that partnership work in Afghanistan, it has to work here in Croatia first.
“The OMLT teams, we’re conducting our fifth iteration right now, are combined in Afghanistan. The officer-in-charge of the team is Croatian and the deputy is an American. They work in platoon-sized elements,” said Wiens.
Building that kind of relationship doesn’t happen overnight and requires constant reinforcement. According to both commanders the key to maintaining that relationship is trust.
“The soldiers, NCOs and officers during this exercise will come to relate to each other in a way that couldn’t happen if we weren’t training together,” Nakic explained. “A lot of these soldiers will meet again, maybe in Afghanistan. In this situation both of our soldiers will already have had the chance to work together, and they will have a better level of trust in each other. We are partners.”
“The trust thing is very important; we’re there to back each other up,” Wiens agreed. “Trust is built into our daily routine here; it’s built into our tasks, and it becomes even more important in combat situations such as Afghanistan.”
The relationship between the Croatian military and the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, has had many years to build on that trust according to Wiens.
“Our partnership with Croatia is entering its fifteenth year in the state partnership program,” he said. “The program has evolved from a partnership for peace program where we trained in very small groups of people. As the program aged we moved on to platoon, company and eventually battalion level training.”
While neither Wiens nor Nakic could speak definitively about the future of combined operations between their battalions, both were hopeful that the partnership would continue and improve.
“In any coalition, it doesn’t matter who it is, you’re better when you practice, it just makes both partners better,” Wiens said.
“In the future we must have more of these types of events,” Nakic agreed. “It’s my point of view that it’s very, very important for the Croatian army and for units like mine. I know that the American Army is the best partner for the Croatian army.”
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