SUKHOTHAI, Thailand - Washington National Guard members of the 176th Engineer Company are no stranger to the culture and people of the Kingdom of Thailand. Their participation in Exercise Cobra Gold 2014 is the fourth consecutive year they have traveled to Thailand to build a schoolhouse and, in turn, develop a strong friendship with the people here.
The 176th arrived at the Ban Sa la Kai Fub School recently in Sukhothai province, Kingdom of Thailand, with 19 Soldiers whose specialties cover any and all aspects of the new school building they were assigned to construct as part of CG 14, a Thai-U.S. co-sponsored exercise committed to improving regional partnership, prosperity and security in the Asia-Pacific region.
This year's build also provided a unique opportunity for the 176th Soldiers to not only develop further relations with the Royal Thai Army, but also to work with members of the Malaysian and Indonesian Armed Forces for the first time on the new school construction.
"It was great to be able and work with so many nations," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Gegenheimer, a platoon sergeant and the construction subject matter expert for the site with the unit. "Communication has been difficult, but with gestures and (their) knowledge of English, we have been able to understand and work together as a unit."
A total of 16 Royal Thai Army Engineers from the 302nd Eng. Battalion, nine Malaysian engineers and 10 Indonesian engineers worked alongside the 176th at the site.
Gegenheimer has attended all four years his unit has been invited to Cobra Gold and said he really likes what the mission stands for and being able to mingle with the Thai people. The people there do not have much, but what they do have, they are willing to share, continued Gegenheimer.
"I hope we can come back every year because this event is the best form of training and experience our guys can get," Gegenheimer said. "It (the school construction) brings all of our unit's military occupational specialties together and displays the final product we (participants from Cobra Gold) can produce."
Proof of the impression the 176th leaves on the Thai community was shown when the district principal and staff of the school built in 2012 showed up bearing gifts. They came to update the Soldiers on the improvements made on the school since they left and to thank them again for all they did for the community.
"It was a true testament to the strength of the bond we created with them during our visit last year," said Staff Sgt. Omar Trujillo, an engineer civic assistance project noncommissioned officer. "You have to come here with an open mind and involve them (the other nations) in the entire process to see the best results."
First Lt. Brien Waldron, the Engineering Civic Action Program officer in charge, explained the project presented numerous challenges, but the ability to compromise and work together always triumphed in the end.
Not all of the 176th soldiers were Cobra Gold veterans, and this opportunity was embraced by many of the lower enlisted Soldiers as a great opportunity to work and learn from other nations.
"As my first year here, I think the mission and what it stands for is awesome," said Pfc. Michael Groark, a carpentry and masonry specialist with the unit. "We hangout every night with them (members from the other nations) to talk and play card games."
Groark said the best aspect of being here, aside from being able to work and learn from the difference nations, has been the chance to create lasting friendships with them.
The 176th is nearly finished with this years project and the introduction of Malaysia and Indonesia personnel has produced new challenges for the Soldiers. These challenges only pushed the 176th to develop new methods to overcome any obstacle in the way of seeing the mission through.
"In my mind completing the school is secondary to the bigger picture of creating a lasting partnership," Trujillo said.