CHARLESTON, W.Va. - With the changing face of the military, many service components find themselves trying to determine their place in the new global landscape. The National Guard maintains its foothold not only with a homeland defense mission, but also through a partnership with select nations that foster political, military and civic relationships.
The State Partnership Program began in 1992 with goals including improving the capabilities of partner nations to protect their citizens; strengthening relationships with partners to facilitate cooperation, access, and interoperability; improving cultural awareness and skills among U.S. military personnel and fostering the integration of reserve and active component forces into a "total force."
West Virginia's State Partnership Program was formed in 1996 with Peru. Since its inception, the West Virginia National Guard has completed 92 engagement events with Peru. Many of these missions have been military-centric, with disaster management and joint operations being a heavy focus.
"Things really took off after 9/11 and we started really doing a lot of engagements," said Lt. Col. Todd Miller, Director-WVNG State Partnership Program. "We worked with (Peru) sharing how we do things in the hopes that we could work together in times of natural disaster."
Members of the West Virginia Air National Guard's medical squadron have travelled to the South American country and hosted Peruvians here in West Virginia on occasions to discuss matters of public health including women's health, dental issues and immunizations. Teams have also worked together on aircraft maintenance, load planning, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Discussions have also been held on the RC-26 aircraft and its capabilities such as Forward Looking Infrared operations.
"We've done a rural health subject matter expert exchange and a rural health assessment," Miller said. He added that many of these visits are about more than just information exchanges. "It's about learning another culture and providing ways or thoughts on improving quality of life for people of another country. We want to provide information to the decision makers in Peru, so that they are able to make the best decisions possible for their country."
In addition to medical concerns, members of the WVNG have performed missions designed to bolster the infrastructure in Peru. Members of the 111th Engineer Brigade have worked with Peruvian engineers to construct community buildings. Members of the West Virginia Air National Guard's Communications Squadron installed cable and wire inside those buildings. This month, members of the 111th Engineer Brigade were to again be working side by side with Peruvian counterparts to construct roads in a city South of Lima.
The partnership is becoming more recognized within the Peruvian Army, Air Force and Civil Defense Force. A focus on disaster management has sparked interest within Peru's military to develop teams similar to West Virginia's Civil Support Team and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package.
West Virginia's success and explosive growth of the State Partnership Program can be attributed in large part to the work of the SPP director. Miller began working with the program in 2001 as an additional duty. When a full-time Air Guard position became available to head up the SPP, Miller (then an Army National Guard member) transferred to the Air National Guard and became the program coordinator.
Miller, now one of the most senior SPP coordinators in the National Guard, has worked for the past 10 years to bring more opportunities to not only Guard members, but also civil authorities and civilians who want to experience the cultural and knowledge exchange with Peru.
"We're trying to assist all of the service components by synchronizing our efforts and creating small unit training exercises," he said. "We are trying to work with the various service components - Army South, Air Forces South, Special Operations South ... to coordinate our efforts in Peru and share needed resources and funding."
One recent addition to the program has literally brought dozens of people online from the Mountain State to Lima. In 2011, a Skype exchange was established between local school children and their peers in Peru. These exchanges have been so successful that the Peruvian Air Force has requested to partner with nine of their high schools and anticipate that the Peruvian Navy will do the same. Students break down language and cultural barriers through discussions on common topics such as art, food and festivals; discussions that Miller says are some of his favorite to watch.
"My favorite is the Skype exchange," he said. "The kids ... they don't really have exposure to other cultures like this. To be able to introduce them to a different culture and a different language and see how they interact. It's great."
Another facet that is being planned for the future of the State Partnership Program is the addition of more civilian exchange opportunities. Plans are in the works for students from West Virginia University to study fashion and merchandising within Peru's alpaca industry.
Miller added that he hopes to see more opportunities open up for Soldiers and civilians to participate in the SPP.
"I want to see this program grow so more [Guard members] have the opportunity to participate," he said. "So many of our people don't have the chance to travel like this ... the program gives them that opportunity."