CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – Travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced the Washington National Guard to develop new strategies to maintain strong relationships with its partner nations through the State Partnership Program (SPP).
“The first exchange of 2020 was scheduled for March. Approximately two weeks before our team was scheduled to leave for Thailand, the exchange was canceled due to coronavirus,” said Maj. Keith Kosik, director of the Washington National Guard SPP. “We had hoped that the August exchange would be able to be conducted in-person, but unfortunately, the coronavirus threat has persisted and international travel is not currently an option.”
Instead of canceling another exchange, the Guard decided to move forward virtually, hosting the first subject matter expert exchange with the port Laem Chabang in Thailand Aug. 17-19.
“Maj. Jeff McDonald, a former SPP director, Maj. Joel Johnson (our bilateral affairs officer in Thailand) and I agreed that a virtual exchange was possible if our partners were willing to try it,” said Kosik. “We believe that the security cooperation work that we do with our partners is too important to pause until the pandemic passes.”
The port of Laem Chabang is a deepwater port on the Gulf of Thailand. As one of the busiest ports in Asia, it is critical to trade in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Northwest. Much of the cargo from the port enters the United States through the Port of Tacoma.
Since 2005, members of the Washington National Guard have traveled from Seattle to Pattaya, Thailand, to take part in a multiday exchange with the port that included security, incident command systems, hazardous materials and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear explosive preparation and response, medical, and crisis communication.
“Maj. Johnson met with our partners at the port of Laem Chabang, and with collaboration from Maj. McDonald and others, put together an impressive three-day virtual agenda,” said Kosik. “The 14-hour time difference was a challenge, and while we all prefer in-person communication, redesigning an exchange conducted virtually still yields a lot of value.”
The framework for the virtual meetings with people in Thailand was tested in June by Brig. Gen. Gent Welsh, commander of the Washington Air National Guard, who conducted a senior-level Airmen-to-Airmen meeting with his Thai counterparts.
“Even during a pandemic, our national security is still a top priority, making it critical that we maintain the relationships with our allies,” said Welsh. “Our Airmen that were supporting a domestic mission one week turned their focus to supporting international diplomacy the next week.”
Later this month, three more SPP virtual exchanges will take place with Thai partners. In September, Airmen will conduct a virtual exchange with Airmen from the Washington Guard’s newest partner country, Malaysia.
“This is one of the strengths of the National Guard: adapting and overcoming an obstacle to achieve our mission,” said Welsh. “We are committed to our partners in both Thailand and Malaysia and will continue to find ways to strengthen our bonds through virtual means while looking forward to the next time we can be together again.”
The State Partnership Program is more than 25 years old and links a unique component of the Department of Defense - a state's National Guard - with the armed forces or equivalent of a partner country in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship.