FORT HARRISON, Mont. - Fifteen Virginia National Guard Soldiers participated in Regional Cooperation 2021, a U.S. Central Command exercise to promote cooperation and joint combined capabilities with partner nations in Central and South Asia, or CASA.
The annual exercise, held this year June 7-17 at Fort Harrison, was a brigade-level command post exercise. Virginia Soldiers integrated into various roles, often working alongside partner nation military members.
"It's exciting for me to see the partnerships," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John P. Hronek, the adjutant general of Montana. "I really think this is a very important exercise as we look into our futures as to how we grow as nations and how we build relationships."
For nearly 20 years, the Virginia National Guard has partnered with Tajikistan as part of the Department of Defense's State Partnership Program, and the relationship between Virginia and Tajikistan is what led the Virginia Soldiers to support RC21. This year brought increased participation from Virginia and partner nations, which alongside Tajikistan included Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Mongolia.
"One thing Regional Cooperation has shown me is that everyone has something they can teach, and everyone has something they need to learn," said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Richard Weeks, the lead exercise planner for RC21.
"No one country has the best way of doing business in every area, and exercises like Regional Cooperation truly allow us to work together and exchange those ideas to both pull and learn from each other's strengths."
Officially, RC21 aims to reach a point of "enhanced regional security and stability; increase national capabilities and a commitment to interdict weapons of mass destruction, counter terrorist elements and narcotics; and develop a professional force with the capability to participate in international peacekeeping and peace support operations."
The exercise began with a multiday staff training event that gave all participants, U.S. and foreign, a refresher on staff operations and the military decision-making process, or MDMP. After that, the participants jumped into the CPX, with Virginians operating in staff positions within the exercise, and in the higher and lower control cells. For much of the exercise, Virginians worked with their partners from Tajikistan, utilizing interpreters to communicate as needed and learning from each other as they battled against a notional enemy.
"The international partners have been very engaged whenever we've been doing MDMP, planning and running current operations, and we've had [several] opportunities where we've gone out to dinner with them and socialized and just talked about each other's cultures and what our interests are," explained Master Sgt. Sean Manis, one of the Virginia National Guard Soldiers who participated in RC21 in the engineer cell.
Manis said the interpreters facilitated exercise-related conversations and informal discussions. He and his Tajik partner pulled up Google Earth and showed each other where they live and shared photos from their lives at home.
"This is important because we can build those relationships and share the same understanding and speak the same operational language."
One opportunity to learn from each other came in the middle of the exercise, when international partners cooked for their U.S. counterparts, with food prepared by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Mongolians. Capt. Isaac Rivera, the Virginia National Guard's SPP director, said the Tajiks prepared plov, a spiced rice and meat dish that is the national dish of Tajikistan.
"It was delicious," Rivera said.
On one of the final days of the exercise, senior leaders from participating states and nations visited Fort Harrison. Virginia National Guard Brig. Gen. James Ring, the director of the joint staff, and Col. Todd Hubbard, operations chief, thanked the Tajiks for their continued partnership. Ring presented each of the 15 participating Tajiks with a coin from Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the adjutant general of Virginia.
"This is a small token of how much the Virginia National Guard and we in Virginia cherish the relationship with Tajikistan," Ring said. "I want to thank each of you for your military service and for standing for the freedom of your country and your country's sovereignty."