LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. - The New Jersey National Guard recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of its alliance with the republic of Albania through the State Partnership Program.
Soldiers and airmen from New Jersey have worked with their counterparts in Albania since 1993 to modernize the former communist nation's defense forces and prepare it for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Albania is scheduled to join the 26-nation alliance in April 2009.
Albanian Minister of Defense Gazmend Oketa said New Jersey provided critical assistance to help it reach its longstanding goal of NATO membership.
"The Albanian armed forces are proud of our achievements and we are proud to say we were not alone," Oketa told National Guard members who gathered at luncheon held at the Lawrenceville Armory in his honor. "The Albanian armed forces welcomed your help -- and your friendship."
Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, the state adjutant general, said the soldiers and airmen from New Jersey watched the Albanian defense forces blossom in the past several years.
"The quality of the Albanian soldier is top tier," he said.
Many of the New Jersey Guard members and former members, who deployed to Albania to serve as advisors were honored at the event as well.
Among them was Dennis Bliss, a retired Army National Guard colonel who served as a legal advisor to Albania during the early years of the partnership. He helped draft a constitution that incorporates some of the language and ideas found in the U.S. Constitution.
"It was exciting to help an emerging democracy learn from the experiences we had in the United States and allow them to cherry pick the best of what we had to offer," he said. "You're kind of a Johnny Appleseed for a democracy that can be lasting."
The State Partnership Program spawned many friendships over the years.
"We have more in common than what separates us," said Lt. Col. Bruce Protesto, a former program participant.
Maj. Judie Marranco, another program participant, said it was a gratifying experience.
"With this partnership, we bring friendship," she said. "And when you have a friend you know they're going to do anything they can to help."