BULBOACA, Moldova - As a mob of mock protesters made its way toward the Moldova National Army's 22nd Peacekeeping Battalion's base camp here, guards along the perimeter shouted warnings to their fellow soldiers, setting in motion a complicated but practiced and well-executed response plan.
Two trucks pulled up, and a squad of peacekeepers carrying riot shields jumped off, assembled in orderly ranks and moved off as one to the problem area.
The protesters ignored commands from the Moldovan soldiers, shouted taunts and insults and threw empty plastic water bottles at the camp's defenders.
The shield-carrying squad quickly formed a line in front of the checkpoint gate, one shield's edge nested tightly with the next to form a protective barrier, and as a unit, they advanced a step at a time toward the protesters. With each command to move, the soldiers gave an obedient shout, took a step and slowly pushed the mob back.
The mock riot was soon quelled - without a single shot fired.
Looking on throughout this scenario and others, North Carolina National Guard Soldiers spent last week helping the Moldovans polish their skills before the kick-off of a week-long exercise called Peace Shield 2011, which began Monday. Familiarizing the Moldovans with the techniques needed for international peacekeeping missions was what the Guard members came to accomplish.
Though this type of exercise has been held for the past few years, North Carolina's relationship with the Republic of Moldova began in 1995 as part the State Partnership Program, the National Guard's 65-nation, 20-year-old program that provides unique partnership capacity-building capabilities to combatant commanders and U.S. ambassadors through partnerships between U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia and foreign countries.
This week, NATO evaluators are observing the exercise in order to gauge where the Moldovans are when measured against the NATO yardstick. Feedback provided after the exercise will help the unit correct problems they need to fix before the actual NATO evaluation, which will likely take place sometime next year.
"They are highly-motivated, extremely disciplined soldiers," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Cook, a North Carolina National Guard Soldiers here. "These are some of the best soldiers I've ever worked with."
This training event marks the fourth year North Carolina Guard Soldiers have come to the Bulboaca training site about 45 minutes east of Moldova's capital, Chisinau, to work with this battalion.
The Moldovans are honing their skills in order to meet NATO standards for conducting peacekeeping operations. They previously achieved the first level of NATO's requirements but will eventually be evaluated on how well they have advanced to the second level. Meeting NATO standards does not imply Moldova will join the alliance, only that it has a unit with internationally-accepted skills needed for peacekeeping duties.
Members of the North Carolina team who assisted the Moldovans last year said they found a much-improved unit when they returned for the 2011 mission.
"I see a very big difference in terms of their training, leadership and discipline," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Fred Cromartie, a North Carolina Guard member helping with the training. "I'm very impressed with how well they've performed this year."
Army Maj. Jerry Baird, officer in charge of the North Carolina team, said he attributes this to how well the unit has retained what it has learned.
"Corporate knowledge," said Baird, who is also deputy commander of the North Carolina National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion. Many of the Soldiers he brought with him are from his command. "We had concerns about turnover in the [Moldovan] unit taking soldiers, who'd had the skills familiarization and practice, out of the battalion, but the Moldovan leadership took action to prevent that, and it's paid off for them."
The Moldovan National Army relies heavily on draftees for its manpower. In recent years, Army leaders have made a concerted effort to induce soldiers to sign contracts making them professional military members. Unless they sign on as professionals, drafted soldiers spend one year in the military before mustering out.
"And that would mean a unit like the 22nd would basically have to start from scratch every year," Baird said. "That would make it very hard for them to reach their goals, because the certification process takes several years."
Not all Moldovan units have received this kind of attention. Though professionalizing the entire Army is a stated goal, the peacekeeping mission is a priority for Moldova's military.
"I'm extremely impressed with how receptive they are and how quickly they implement changes," said Army Staff Sgt. Robert Quinn, a recruiter with the North Carolina Guard.
Quinn has been working closely with Moldovan radio operators, in particular teaching them how to call in a medical evacuation mission, a very important skill in a combat situation.
Like nearly all the North Carolina contingent, Quinn has combat experience. He has also worked on missions training soldiers from other countries in the past.
"These guys are leaps and bounds ahead," he said.
Peace Shield 2011 is scheduled to run through the end of this week, the North Carolina Guard members completed their mission last week and boarded a plane back to the U.S. this past weekend.