MADISON, Wis. – Despite the many disruptions and plans canceled because of COVID-19, in-person exchanges between the Wisconsin National Guard and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force remain on track as the partnership between the two entities continues to grow.
Three military leaders from the Papua New Guinea Defense Force arrived in Wisconsin Feb. 3 in a historic first visit to the Badger State. They traveled to different facilities, met leaders, and experienced some of Wisconsin’s highlights, including a tour of the state capitol, a cheese tasting, and overhead views of snow-covered farms.
Maj. Roselyn Wia, staff officer two to the director of health services for the Papua New Guinea Defense Force, said that upon stepping off her plane she immediately noticed the snow and a few leftover Christmas lights.
“The snow-covered pine trees reminded me of a postcard,” Wia said.
The visitors met with leaders of the 115th Fighter Wing, the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Combined Support Maintenance Shop, the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation, the 426th Regional Training Institute, the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, and Wisconsin’s Joint Force Headquarters. They discussed different facets of the National Guard’s mission, including training, the counterdrug program, leadership development, equipment maintenance, health services and their shared military histories – specifically during World War II.
Lt. Col. Derrek Schultheiss, the State Partnership Program director, has been building a relationship with the Papua New Guinea Defense Force the last two years since the partnership began.
“I found that there are more parallels than differences between our militaries,” stated Schultheiss.
Maj. Sarufa Eka, who is in charge of operations for the military’s engineering battalion, said there is one glaring difference.
“It is much colder here,” he joked.
Some of the common ground their organizations share is adapting their militaries and infrastructure to a modern world and mission sets.
Lt. Col. Boniface Aruma, acting director of force preparation, explained the infrastructure of his military stems from the 1970s when there were only 3 million people in Papua New Guinea.
“Now that we have closer to 8 or 9 million people, our infrastructure must grow, too,” Boniface said.
Col. Jeffrey Alston, the commander of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Brigade Battalion Combat Team, reflected on the culture of the National Guard in the 1970s.
“You used to see a howitzer sitting on someone’s farmland because someone in the company knew someone who would allow us to use their land to train,” Alston said.
Boniface said this resembled how they often rely on their service members’ social connections to find resources and space for training.
“I am laughing because it is so similar. Human beings are the same everywhere, I suppose,” Boniface said.
Another challenge both military forces share is addressing the universal needs of all troops.
Wia toured the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Soldier Readiness Program. This annual process checks in on each Soldier’s financial, spiritual, physical, legal, administrative and mental well-being and assesses their readiness.
“It is clear that the [Wisconsin National Guard] attends to their Soldiers with a fine-toothed comb,” said Wia. “I was especially impressed by how they attend to mental health.”
The Soldier Readiness Program ensures that each Soldier is prepared to deploy quickly, which has become increasingly important for the National Guard. The last two years, the Guard has had no-notice civil unrest and COVID-19 response missions, in addition to overseas deployments.
“Much like the National Guard, we also respond to elections, civil unrest and border control,” Boniface said, referring to the border his country shares with Indonesia.
Besides the many modern parallels between the two militaries, there is also a shared history.
Alston, a self-described history buff, said it is interesting to trace Wisconsin Soldiers to Papua New Guinea in World War II.
“It deepens our ties, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to work with them,” Alston said.
Aruma was unaware of their shared history until they became partners under the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program.
During World War II, the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Division, which consisted of the Wisconsin National Guard and some of the Michigan National Guard, engaged in intense fighting against the Japanese through multiple campaigns in Papua New Guinea. The Buna Campaign was particularly brutal, and three Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers earned the Medal of Honor posthumously for their actions there. The Red Arrow engaged in other major campaigns in Papua New Guinea, including in Saidor and Aitape. The Red Arrow spent 654 days in combat during World War II – more than any other division.
It’s now come full circle with the State Partnership Program, which links individual states with armed forces of partner nations to forge lasting cooperation, friendship and mutually beneficial relationships.
The partners have made significant progress. A Wisconsin National Guard delegation made its first visit to Papua New Guinea and Wisconsin’s adjutant general met in Hawaii with counterparts from Papua New Guinea and other military leaders in the region. The partners have also collaborated via several virtual exchanges the past two years.
Command Sgt. Maj. Terri Vollrath, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s state surgeon cell, said the virtual interactions taught her a lot about how Papua New Guinea handles medical training.
“The experience of working with PNGDF medical teams energized me tremendously and made me feel privileged to be part of the Wisconsin National Guard, where we take our standard of training and amount of supplies for granted,” she said.
Wisconsin also has a partnership with Nicaragua, which began in 2003.