CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – A Washington National Guard Soldier responsible for building international partnerships credits a chance meeting for his current role.
“It was fantastic to have had those introductions,” said Maj. Joel Johnson, who supports the State Partnership Program. “As an active Soldier I knew virtually nothing of the State Partnership Program – my previous FAO (Foreign Area Officer) duties never really had any touchpoints with the National Guard. I certainly had not known that we had such a robust program here. When I learned about it, I got excited and knew I wanted to help make it better.”
After leaving active duty in 2015, Johnson had been living in the Kingdom of Thailand, working in the private sector. But before he left his military career behind, he met with then-Maj. Bill Cooper, who was the State Partnership Program director at the time. Cooper helped Johnson find his next military career move within the Washington National Guard, essentially serving as the Washington National Guard’s own FAO in Thailand.
After five years in that position, Johnson was asked to serve as a Bilateral Affairs Officer (BAO) - essentially an Army or Air National Guard officer who acts as a conduit between the state and the ‘partner country.’ The position is considered a diplomatic assignment and functions as a security co-operation action officer and forward National Guard Liaison Officer, representing the interests of their respective National Guard state.
“What drives me every day is to make the relationship with the Kingdom of Thailand, Royal Thai Military and the United States stronger,” said Johnson. “I will tell you, one of the things that keeps that relationship strong is the enduring, military-to-military relationship.”
Johnson’s experience and knowledge of Thailand made him perfect for the unique job. In 2011 Johnson learned Thai at the Defense Language Institute, earned a master’s degree in international relations from Yale University in 2014, and learned Bahasa Indonesia and Vietnamese as he prepared himself to serve as an Active Duty, Southeast Asia FAO. As such, he has been living in Thailand since 2014 and worked as a management consultant at a private-sector company, as well as general manager of a small business in the five years between leaving active duty and coming back full-time as Washington’s BAO.
“I had spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia and had done a lot of studying and traveling around the region. So it was a no-brainer for me to apply to be an FAO in Southeast Asia after I finished command,” said Johnson.
Through Johnson’s position, he strengthens the bond between the U.S. and Thailand by coordinating bilateral military exchanges, including the exercises Cobra Gold and Hanuman Guardian, and through many other activities such as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief exercises and cultural exchanges, among many others. He coordinates all engagements through his U.S. Joint Services counterparts across the Joint US Military Advisory Group-Thailand (JUSMAGTHAI), where he works inside the Joint Operations Division and the US Embassy in Bangkok.
Johnson’s duties as the Thailand BAO are varied, and he is often asked to support JUSMAGTHAI and US Embassy Bangkok Defense Attache’ Office (DAO) missions. He had the opportunity to help the DAO in December 2021 by escorting Gen. Chalermphorn Srisawasdi, commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, and his delegation to meet with Gen. Mark Milley at the Pentagon and Gen. Daniel Hokanson for a dinner hosted at his home. He coordinated with Ltc. Keith Kosik, Washington SPP director, to coordinate Washington Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty’s attendance at the dinner alongside his Thai counterpart.
Similarly, Johnson has helped link the 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team with the Royal Thai Army’s 112th Stryker Regimental Combat Team to conduct bilateral Stryker training engagements in the U.S. and Thailand. One of Johnson’s long-term goals is to leverage the longevity of 81st SBCT’s Soldiers to form lasting relationships with the 112th SRCT that will enable Thailand, which is the first country outside of the U.S. to buy Strykers, to integrate the armored vehicles. These and other efforts are to achieve US Army Pacific and US Indo Pacific Command goals to build Thailand’s capabilities and to work together with U.S. Stryker units. “Relationships are key” to success for each of these goals, in Johnson’s view.
“I remember bringing a group of Royal Thai Armed Forces officers to the Cascadia Rising exercise in Washington State in 2016. It was so rewarding to see both U.S. and Thai officers together, discussing topics that affect our partner nations,” said Johnson. “The threat of large tsunamis and earthquakes, for example, is a real possibility with both our partner nations, so the more resources we can share to save lives is important.”
Johnson believes the relationships developed through the State Partnership Program are critical to its success.
“I am looking forward to seeing our Washington National Guard Soldiers and Airmen here more and more. I want to see our members and their Thai counterparts here training together, learning and growing together and building relationships,” said Johnson. “When I bring a delegation to the states, I like to rope my local family and friends into the mix – we host dinners and spend time together, and that makes great opportunities to share stories and life experiences. This means a lot because both sides are going to look to those relationships in the future.”