BOISE, Idaho - A team of subject matter experts and senior leaders from the Idaho National Guard were in Cambodia from Sept. 9 -17 working and learning with members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
The mission was part of the National Guard's State Partnership Program and included members from both the Idaho Army National Guard and the Idaho Air National Guard. The program facilitates the exchange of ideas, capabilities, training and experience between a host country and a state's national guard.
"We go over with the attitude that we're going to take some things that we know and share it with them and also elicit the same from them," said Maj. Brady Johnson, bilateral affairs officer for the Idaho Army National Guard. "The experiences they've had in their training and deployed environments are a benefit to our Soldiers and Airmen as well."
During the subject matter expert exchange, Soldiers and Airmen experienced in medical, engineer, convoy and legal operations interacted with Cambodian soldiers who are preparing to deploy to several countries with the United Nations National Peacekeeping Mines and Explosions Remanences of War Clearance program.
Soldiers from both armies and Airmen from the 124th Fighter Wing completed first aid and convoy operations classes together. They also built bridges out of chopsticks and popsicle sticks to explore basic bridging concepts and discussed legal issues that both militaries deal with.
The interactions and engagements between the American and Cambodian forces were as important as the lessons themselves.
"We gave them a lot more information than they are going to leave with, but the biggest benefit was building relationships with the Cambodia army," said Staff Sgt. Ramon Montes. Montes, a Twin Falls resident, is a member of the 116th Calvary Brigade Combat Team's engineer battalion and was the team's convoy operations subject matter expert.
Montes said that he realized that if Cambodian soldiers were more comfortable with him as a person they would be more likely to share information with him. Throughout the week, he made it a point to talk to individual soldiers and to learn something about each one.
"I tried to find something they are interested in and talk to them about it so it didn't feel like I'm just a stranger from another country giving them information just to ‘check a block,'" Montes said.
Tech. Sgt. Davis Nguyen, a member of the 124th Fighter Wing's 190th Fighter Squadron, was one of three medical specialists from Idaho who participated in the mission.
"This has been a very unique trip," Nguyen said. "It brought me out of my conform zone. It was an amazing feeling to immerse ourselves with the Cambodian people."
"Their lifestyle is a lot different than ours," he said. "The way they learn, the way they operate is different than what we are used to back in the United States. It really gave me a much better appreciation of how people in a different country live."
Nguyen has never deployed but said working in a remote location with limited resources is similar to what he'd expect during a deployment. In addition to working with a foreign nation's army, he also enjoyed working with the Idaho Army National Guard for the first time.
"We are going to continue to exchange information with each other, not just with the Cambodians," Nguyen said.
As a team of subject-matter experts worked closely with their counterparts during the week, Col. Michael Garshak, the Idaho Army National Guard's chief of staff, met with the country's senior military officials as part of a senior leader visit.
"Every time we send Soldiers to Cambodia, they fall in love with the country," Garshak said. "I can see why. The Cambodians are appreciative and welcoming to us."
Idaho and Cambodia have participated in the State Partnership Program together since 2009. Each year, the Idaho National Guard makes roughly six to nine similar trips to Cambodia and provides approximately 40 Soldiers and Airmen the opportunity to participate.
Johnson said that the feelings between the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the Idaho National Guard are mutual, which makes for a strong partnership between the two. Senior leaders from the Royal Armed Forces will visit Idaho later this month.
"While we may have only built bridges out of chopsticks, that exercise can be seen as a metaphor for the bigger picture of what we accomplished this week," said Maj. Lauren Tschampl, 124th Fighter Wing staff judge advocate. "We built a strong bridge between the Idaho National Guard and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces that will surely stand the test of time."