PRAGUE, Czech Republic - Sgt. 1st Class Robb Miller admits that when he was first handed the mission from his sergeant major, he was left with a somewhat queasy feeling.
To say that the mission Miller, a Texas Army National Guard operations sergeant in the 36th Infantry Division headquarters, was given was unique would be an understatement. In fact, he had never seen anything like it before.
The mission: take two Texas Army National Guard Soldiers and match them with two Airmen and an additional Soldier from the Nebraska National Guard and – without ever having worked together before – form them into a precision color guard team that would represent the United States during an extremely important Czech event honoring the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918.
What could possibly go wrong?
"It was pretty nerve-wracking," said Miller, a native of Spring, Texas, who was assigned to be the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the National Guard color guard team. "I was pretty nervous about it because I hadn't done (drill and ceremony) in quite a while. I was pretty rusty on the commands."
The roots to this unique mission actually go back a quarter of a century when, in July 1993, the Czech Republic – newly emerged from decades of Soviet control – was matched with the Texas Military Department and the Nebraska National Guard through the newly created Defense Department-sponsored State Partnership Program. The program was designed to assist newly emerging democratic countries prepare for future membership into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance by helping them better understand how military organizations work within democratic institutions, how to shift away from a conscript military to one made up of volunteers, and how to operate within western military tactics, equipment and doctrines.
Countries and states were matched based upon a number factors, not the least of which were cultural, economic and geographic similarities. Nebraska and Texas were matched with the Czech Republic due, in no small part, to the fact that the two states have the highest percentage of citizens claiming Czech heritage in the United States.
To this day, it remains the only State Partnership Program match between two states and a single country.
Over the years, following numerous engagements and activities between the Czechs and the Texans and Nebraskans in Europe and the Continental United States, the bonds between the three entities grew, matured and evolved. Today, the relationship is a collaborative partnership in which all three participants work together to build newer and stronger capacities within each entity.
The proof of how much the Czechs value this relationship came in the form of an invitation to the Nebraska and Texas National Guard to form a six-person color guard and represent the United States during their Oct. 28 Centennial Military Parade in Prague.
Selected to represent the United States were: Miller; Staff Sgt. Eric Halliburton and Sgt. Adrian Tejerina of Company B, 3-144th Infantry, Texas Army National Guard; Tech. Sgt. Darren Davlin, 170th Group, Nebraska Air National Guard; Senior Airman Avery Prai, 155th Air Refueling Wing, Nebraska Air National Guard; and Pfc. Alexa Nelson, 128th Engineer Battalion, Nebraska Army National Guard.
Of the six, only Halliburton and Tejerina had ever worked together. The rest were strangers to each other until they first met before an Oct. 24-25 flight that would take them to the Czech Republic.
"I was excited to be selected," said Davlin, an administrative NCO from the Offutt Air Force Base's 170th Group who grew up in Belgrade and Homer, Nebraska. "But I was also nervous because I had never done anything like this before."
"I was a little nervous," echoed Prai, a 155th Air Refueling Wing paralegal specialist from Lincoln who is currently majoring in economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "The Army and the Air Force do things differently… different cadences, different commands, different styles… I wasn't sure how well we were going to be able to mesh in that short amount of time."
Following the flight to Prague aboard a Nebraska Air National Guard KC-135R Stratotanker that sported a special 25th Anniversary State Partnership Program logo on its nose for the occasion, the six National Guard members were transported to a special area set up by the Czechs where training for the parade was to be conducted.
Among the thousands of Czech and Slovak service members were other military teams representing France, Great Britain and Italy. Fortunately, prior to the start of the training, the Guardsmen had had an opportunity to spend an evening together hanging out and getting to know each other. "You could tell after the first night that the states had sent six perfect members," Davlin said. "Once I met them, I knew were weren't going to have any problems completing the task at hand."
"We just gelled," added Halliburton, an infantry squad leader from Denton, Texas. "We all went out together. We all worked well together. A lot of times it doesn't work like that."
According to Miller, after an initial briefing on the first day of training, the teams were each dispatched to small outdoor training areas where Czech mentors were assigned to help each group prepare for the event. Miller said the English-speaking Czech NCO assigned to the Americans was especially helpful.
"You could tell by the briefing that the Czechs already had planned out how they wanted the parade to go. Our mentor then walked with me each step of the way as we practiced all of the moves we would have make during the parade," Miller said. "It was definitely a crawl, walk, run approach to the training and he was extremely helpful in making sure we understood what they wanted us to do."
"That was essential," Miller added. "Having that many units from that many countries marching together… they definitely needed a plan to ensure some control over the parade, otherwise we each would've approached it in our own way and if that had happened, it would've looked really bad."
Initially during the breaks in training, the various national teams "pretty much stayed to themselves," said Halliburton. However by the second day, the walls that had initially separated the various national teams began to break apart.
"It was really good because we got to interact with service members from other countries and learn how they operate," he said. "We learned that despite the language differences, we are all pretty much the same and that we were all proud to be there in Prague representing our countries at this important event."
"Before you knew it, we were all talking together, taking pictures together. It was pretty cool," Prai added.
Little by little, Miller said, the Midwestern team began to pick up on the subtle expectations, such as marching to the rhythm of the drums, how to stay in step as they moved along the streets as the sounds changed, when to salute. Yet one important detail alluded them, said Nelson, the lone female Soldier on the team.
"The one thing we just couldn't seem to get right was how to move in unison when Sgt. Miller called, ‘Eyes Right!' said Nelson, a Nebraska Army National Guard medic who is studying to be a nurse at Northeastern Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska. "Try as we might, we just couldn't seem to make that move in one perfect movement."
On the day of the parade, the team woke up early, had lunch and then moved to a holding area at the beginning of the nearly 2-kilometer parade route. With them were nearly 5,000 mostly Czech service members and emergency response personnel, all of whom would either be marching in the parade, driving one of a myriad of tracked or wheeled vehicles, or piloting one of several helicopters or fast-moving JAS 39 Gripen jet fighters.
One problem loomed, however.
The weather in Prague had changed over the course of several days. On that Sunday, dark gray clouds hung heavily over the city, bone-chilling mists and raindrops pelting the buildings, pavements, vehicles and people below. Standing on the street in the ready area, their uniforms rapidly dampening in the rain as their hands and feet began to chill, the National Guard members said they tried hard to push the weather to the back of their minds. It wasn't easy, though.
"It was miserable," Prai said. "It was just so cold. The time we stood there waiting to march just seemed to crawl by."
"I was really starting to worry about my hands," added Miller, who as the color guard NCOIC, was carrying a sword he would use to salute the senior dignitaries as they passed by the reviewing stand. "I really started worrying that they were going to become so numb that I would end up dropping the sword when I tried to salute."
As the parade got underway, the National Guard Soldiers and Airmen prepared to move out to the rhythmic sounds of the distant Czech military band behind a similar team from Italy. Miller said that through the earlier training sessions, he had learned there were significant differences in marching speeds and techniques between the various nations. Those differences could cause gaps to quickly grow between the teams if he wasn't careful.
He was ready when the time came, though. "When (the Italian team) started moving, I ordered us to march at the same time," he said. By doing that, he added, he avoided creating a gap throughout the parade route.
Stepping out onto the four-lane street and down the hill toward the main reviewing stands set up near Czech Ministry of Defense buildings, each of the National Guard Soldiers and Airmen focused on keeping in step, trying to keep their minds from wandering to the sides of the boulevard where thousands of Czech onlookers watched, many applauding or taking photos.
"I felt a huge pride marching in the parade. I got the chills," Nelson said, adding that despite trying to focus on marching, she couldn't help seeing what was going on in the crowd. "I kept thinking, ‘Oh my Gosh, they're taking photos of us.' …but you had to push that aside. It was really important that we look good."
"It was a wonderful experience," added Tejerina, a Texas Army National Guard infantry squad leader from Ennis, Texas, who works as a police officer in South Dallas in civilian life. "The biggest surprise, I think, was the love and support that (the Czech people) had for the United States. It was really evident while we were marching."
"I was definitely feeling the nerves," said Davlin, who was selected to bear the national colors during the parade. "Mainly, I just focused on marching, on staying in step with the rest of the team and making sure that I carried the flag correctly. I pretty much tried to block out everything else."
Finally, the moment of truth arrived. As the team approached the reviewing stand where throngs of senior diplomats and military leaders sat, including the Czech president, Czech prime minister, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the adjutants general of the Texas and Nebraska National Guard, each of the color guard members dialed up their individual focus for the remaining challenge: Miller on making the correct movements with his sword, Davlin on holding the flag straight, the rest on executing the "Eyes Right!" action in unison while remaining in step.
And then… the team did it. After only two short days of training, the Texas and Nebraska National Guard team passed by the reviewing stand in perfect harmony, each of the movements performed flawlessly.
"It was just perfect," Nelson said. "It was cool that we were able to do what we were supposed to do right when we were supposed to."
The team definitely made an impression.
"I think they knocked it out of the park. They looked really sharp and really represented the United States well," said Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, Nebraska adjutant general. "They marched like a well-oiled machine."
"I thought it was typical Guard," added Maj. Gen. John Nichols, Texas adjutant general. "They really didn't know what they were getting into, but when they learned that they were going to represent the United States during an important event for our Czech allies, they wanted to be a part of it. The team really came together well."
Moments later, after completing the parade, members of the team suddenly realized what they had just accomplished.
"As we were marching up the hill, there were still people there, clapping and taking pictures," Davlin said. "It was at that point that it dawned on me how important this really was and how proud I was to present Nebraska, the National Guard and the United States in Prague that day."
"I really didn't realize what a big deal this was until we were done," Halliburton said, adding that as the team paused before marching on to a second ceremony, they were approached by dozen of local Czechs. "Everybody was looking at you, taking pictures of you, posing with us for pictures. It was pretty amazing."
"People were stopping us, wanting to take pictures, wanting us to hold their kids while they took pictures," echoed Tejerina. "It was just an amazing experience."
An experience few, if any, will ever forget.
"I just felt so good to have had an opportunity to be a part of this," Nelson said. "It was just… overwhelming."