NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga — A shirtless Olympian adorned in traditional tribal dress wasn't the only thing from Tonga grabbing headlines this month.
The Nevada National Guard and Kingdom of Tonga completed their largest State Partnership Program (SPP) exchange here Friday in the partnership's two-year history with Soldiers and Airmen simultaneously working three separate exchanges alongside several Tongan military and civilian agencies.
More than a dozen Nevada Guard members participated with representatives of His Majesty's Royal Armed Forces, Ministry of Agriculture along with the Ministry of Information and Communications, Police, Prison and Fire.
"It been a very informative week with good interactions throughout," Nevada Air Guard Director of Staff Col. Glen Martel said.
After completing more than 20 exchanges in the previous two years, this month's exchange focused on search and rescue, agricultural security and equipment maintenance procedures.
"The purpose was to conduct three separate exchanges during the same period as a way to exchange information on logistical support and interagency support at all levels," Nevada SPP Director Maj. John Browell said.
During one site visit, members of the agricultural security team viewed and discussed the impact of deforestation of the mangrove coastal vegetation, and how it leaves the island nation vulnerable to tsunami.
"In order to be effective in a partnership they (Nevada Soldiers and Airmen) realize they have to know the basic importance of agriculture to the Tongans, which they see as absolutely core to their society," said Paul Sommers, project manager for the California State University, Fresno's Agricultural Development Armed Forces Pre-Deployment Training (ADAPT) program.
Sommers, who attended the exchange with Nevada Guard members, said the deforestation of the coastal vegetation could have devastating effects for the Tongan people. Understanding those effects was vital for the local population's natural disaster preparation and for Nevada Guardsmen in case of emergency response to the island, he said.
"They are getting an idea on some of the issues faced with disasters and the possibility for reduction of these disasters," Sommers said.
Additionally, a team of five Nevada Guard mechanics held an exchange with members of the Tongan Navy on the importance of generator maintenance. The mechanics even helped members of His Majesty's Armed Forces resurrect two welding generators during the exchange.
"You can tell, as far as information and learning, they were very interested…and we were able to travel the island to speak with local town commissioners and other people about their disaster plans," said Sgt. Brittney Lynch, a heavy equipment supervisor of the 777th Engineer Company, Nevada Army National Guard, who briefed on search and rescue disaster response.
The Nevada National Guard and the Kingdom of Tonga signed a Declaration of Partnership on April 11, 2014. SPP links a state's National Guard with the armed forces of a partner country.
"The program is aimed to reinforce relationships with defense and also training of our capability," Lt. Col. Lord Ve'ehala, of His Majesty's Royal Armed Forces, said at the closing ceremony of last week's exchange. "At the same time, it helps the Nevada National Guard learn more about us in the Pacific, how we operate and how we work in time of crisis."
SPP is administered by the National Guard Bureau, guided by State Department foreign policy goals, and executed by each state's adjutant general in support of combatant commanders and Department of Defense policy goals.
Additionally, Nevada and Tonga have partnered in several U.S. Pacific Command and South Pacific exercises that include active duty, guard and reserve forces, as well as military personnel from Australia, New Zealand and several other Pacific Rim nations.