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Home : News : State Partnership Program
NEWS | July 14, 2023

‘The Most Important People in the Army are the Sergeants’ The Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program: A Crucial Arrow in Ukraine’s Quiver

By Master Sgt. Jim Greenhill and Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely, National Guard Bureau

This is part five of the five part series “State Partnership Program turns 30.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, some of the first phone calls from Kiev were to Sacramento.

For almost 30 years since founding the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program, California National Guardsmen and their Ukrainian counterparts have held exchanges, trained together, and built troop-to-troop friendships.

Now, Ukraine was under attack, the victim of a brutal, unprovoked invasion, and much of the world thought it would be conquered quickly.

“California Guardsmen told me, ‘Not so fast. We’ve trained with them and learned from them shoulder-to-shoulder. They’re good,’” recalls Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, 29th Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

“Because the Ukrainians felt comfortable with those relationships they had developed for almost 30 years at that point, those were their friends, and they were the people they reached out to immediately.”

Urgent text messages from a Ukrainian soldier experiencing a weapons malfunction were exchanged with a Washington National Guardsman back in the States who he had trained with – an expert on the anti-tank missile system in question – and later followed by a video of a destroyed Russian tank.

“In this war, it doesn’t matter which kind of technique or technology we use; people are still critical – crucial,” says Chief Master Sgt. Oleksandr Kosynskyi, senior enlisted leader, Ukrainian Armed Forces. “Modern warfare needs responsible, competent and motivated NCOs. We have a huge history of cooperation with the California National Guard, which has given us good help.” 

Army Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, California’s adjutant general, says that cooperation continues today.

“We’re maintaining a relatively persistent dialogue with our Ukrainian counterparts throughout the entire invasion,” Beevers says. “So, even though we are unable to execute SPP engagements in Ukraine during the conflict, we have been able to maintain those relationships.

“We can help Ukrainians translate, if you will, the great work that they’re doing on behalf of not just Ukraine, but NATO and the entire free world.”

The 1993 California / Ukraine pairing in the SPP had also been a textbook example of one of the messages Guard leaders repeat to partner nations: When you partner with a state, you partner with the entire National Guard.

On Feb. 20, 2014, Russia began annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

Shortly afterward, Air Force Gen. Phil Breedlove, who was dual-hatted as both commander, U.S. European Command, and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, invited the National Guard Bureau’s chief at the time, now-retired Army Gen. Frank Grass, to his official residence in Mons, Belgium.

“With a resurgent Russia, we talked about the value of the State Partnership Program in all these countries,” Grass recalls. “He gave me his guidance to share with the adjutants general about what was needed from a EUCOM and NATO perspective.”

Grass shared Breedlove’s guidance: Accelerate exercises. If you need resources, team up. Link up with the partner defense chiefs. If they ask for something, work it through EUCOM, but know you probably already have my approval, if it makes sense.

“He just couldn’t say enough good things about the relationships the adjutants general had with the chiefs of defense in all those countries,” Grass says, “especially the former Warsaw Pact nations, those now-independent countries, and how they had built through the SPP, working with EUCOM and the State Department, creating incredible capacity from virtually nothing.”

In Ukraine’s case, the California Guard was the key to Guard nation. 

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea later resulted in years of intensified training that National Guard leaders say can be directly tied to Ukraine’s ability to resist the recent invasion, 18 months on.

By 2015, Guardsmen and women were almost continuously training with Ukrainian counterparts, rotating through the newly established Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, or JMTG-U, at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center in western Ukraine. 

The mission of JMTG-U is to train, equip, develop and assist the Ukrainian Armed Forces with doctrine refinement, and 7th Army Training Command oversees the mission.

When the California Guard wasn’t there, units from other states were. Indeed, Florida Guardsmen would be among the last U.S. troops to leave the country in the days leading up to Russia’s 2022 invasion. The Florida Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team was repositioned to Grafenwoehr, Germany, where the JMTG-U mission quickly resumed and continues to this day.

Two months ago, California Guardsmen reunited with some of their Ukrainian counterparts in Poland.

“They came to us and said, ‘We have this initiative to make behavioral health a priority in our forces, we just don’t know how to do it’,” says Army Lt. Col. Dustin Harris, chief of Behavioral Health, California National Guard.

The California Guard had a rich variety of resources to draw on and share, including the U.S. Army’s Master Resilience Training program, which enhances Soldier leadership and effectiveness and teaches resilience skills.

And, typical of SPP engagements, the California Guardsmen took lessons learned back home.

“One of the most important things to remember is the Ukrainian troops don’t get to go home,” Harris says. “They’re fighting on their own territory. That was such a big takeaway and so eye-opening.”

A Ukrainian showed Harris a smartphone image of his home.

“I’m like, ‘Oh! That’s a beautiful home,’ right?” Harris recalls. “Then he swipes to the next photo, and he’s like, ‘It’s got blown up.’  They’re in constant war. What they’re going through in their forces, they’re going to deal with this for decades. Our intent is making sure that they have what they need – the framework – to help their troops.

“To help their entire nation.”

Army Maj. Daniel Burns, a California Guard behavioral health officer, feels a strong bond with the Ukrainians he worked with in Poland and will be continuing to train with in more exchanges scheduled for the coming months.

“They know what they’re fighting for: They’re fighting for freedom’,” Burns says. “It is just very similar to our core value of fighting for freedom. This is just kind of an ethos alliance between the two cultures – and it makes it very, very pure, and a very rewarding exchange.” 

Hokanson visited the 53rd IBCT last June and the New York Guard’s 27th IBCT, the next unit in the JMTG-U rotation, this March. There, he met with the Guardsmen and active component Army troops responsible to refit and train Ukrainians headed back to the front lines of Ukraine’s fight for democracy, sovereignty and territorial integrity against Russian aggression.

“The whole world is watching the work you’re doing,” Hokanson told 27th IBCT Soldiers, “and it’s making a huge difference.”

Retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, Grass’ successor as 28th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, also observed the training in Yavoriv firsthand during a 2018 visit.

“You could see the value in the professional development of the soldiers of the Ukrainian military,” Lengyel says.

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner served with Lengyel as the 5th Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

“He used to tell me that the most important people in the Army are the sergeants who lead the soldiers and trust them and ensure they’re properly trained,” Lengyel says. “I’m a big believer in that. And I suspect that’s had a huge impact on the success of Ukraine’s military in this conflict with Russia, Ukraine being a force developed under the model of our military, where people are motivated and disciplined, and trained and equipped, and ready – and can do amazing things against a bigger adversary.”

SEA Tony Whitehead is the 6th Senior Enlisted Advisor to the CNGB.

“Our partnership with the California National Guard and the SPP has had a significant impact on Ukraine’s military capabilities,” Whitehead says. “During the Russian attack on Ukraine, the importance of fostering and maintaining connections was evident. We have set a precedent and laid a foundation that can inspire other nations to educate and empower their enlisted corps. The transformation of Ukraine’s military into a formidable force is a testament to the effectiveness of our longstanding relationships and training partnerships.”

It all comes down to the SPP’s secret sauce: Individual relationships built and nurtured over years.

“What friendships do, what relationships do, is they allow countries to be open and honest and transparent with each other,” Lengyel says. “They can share their weaknesses and ask for help. Because they’re friends, they will share things they might not otherwise want to expose. The end result is they fix their problems and their weaknesses, and they become a much more capable force. 

“And I’m quite sure that’s what happened in Ukraine.”

That type of transformation happens at the small unit level, where dialogue between individual soldiers makes both partners better.

“We build high-performing teams,” Lengyel says. “Those teams aggregate to make a fighting force. The building blocks are at the individual Soldier and Airman level.”

The Russian model concentrates power and decision-making authority with general officers. The American model delegates to the noncommissioned officer level, empowering NCOs to take initiative in the absence of orders.

“Back when the former Soviet Union would look at us and wonder what our strength was, it was the value of the enlisted Soldiers and Airmen who are so outstanding,” says retired Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, 26th Chief of the National Guard Bureau. “We decentralize control so that these young men and women can make decisions on the battlefield or in the air.”

For a generation, Ukraine had absorbed that model from Guardsmen from their California SPP partner, and from other states that partnership gave them access to.

“Many countries have not adopted that,” Grass says. “If you study those that haven’t, you begin to see the true value of the NCO corps – and it’s coming out loud and clear in Ukraine.”

– Army Sgt. 1st Class Whitney Hughes and Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Pena, National Guard Bureau, contributed.