NASICE, Croatia - When Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Nagorski left his Minnesota home for his annual training he was unaware of the camaraderie that would be awaiting him and his team in eastern Croatia.
Nagorski, a platoon sergeant for the 851st Vertical Engineer Company, Camp Ripley, Minn., arrived in Croatia ready to train and manage teams of Minnesota National Guard Soldiers who were scheduled to cycle through and perform annual training in Nasice, a small town on the northern slopes of Krndija Mountain in eastern Slavonia.
While Nagorski is more versed in building concrete structures than he is in building partnerships with international military personnel, he said creating an integrated and cooperative team with members of the Croatian army was easier than settling sand with a tamper, a tool used to pack clay and sand.
The engineers are working side by side with Croatian army engineers to complete a project designed to train the soldiers and strengthen the cooperative relationship that exists with Croatia, Minnesota's partner nation under the National Guard's State Partnership Program.
"The whole platoon has gotten an opportunity to learn a bit about the Croatian culture - from how they build to how they live," Nagorski said.
"Specifically, we are working together to build an addition onto a kindergarten [school], including an additional classroom, a handicap-accessible bathroom and a ramp."
When the project is completed, Nagorski said it will serve more than 200 local children each year.
Nagorski feels lucky to have been given such a great opportunity to sharpen his communication, leadership and soldier skills in Croatia.
"I think more soldiers should get the opportunity to train like this," he said. "It's been such a great opportunity for individuals from both countries."
Croatian Maj. Goran Zubak, second in command of the Croatian Army's Guard Armoured Mechanized Battalion, has been working with Nagorski and managing the Croatian soldiers involved in the engineering project.
"The Minnesota National Guard Soldiers have a good understanding of the work we are doing, and all of [them] are working with great cooperation," Zubak said. "I'm also pleased that our Soldiers began working together immediately, despite the language barrier. They've worked well together - like one team.
"This is the first time I've worked with U.S. Soldiers, and I am extremely satisfied with the results," he said. "I've been able to develop a great relationship with the [noncommissioned officers] and officers from Minnesota. They've worked very hard, and they've done a really good job.
"This specific project is somewhat humanitarian, too," Zubak said. "It's good for the local, civilian population and will provide multiple benefits, besides simply training our Croatian and Minnesota engineers."
Croatian Capt. Marko Strunje, an engineering officer for the Mechanized Battalion, has been hands-on since day one on the job site and said the State Partnership Program is very beneficial to Croatia.
"This has been really good," Strunje said. "I've been very satisfied working with the Minnesota Soldiers. The [Guard members] are very professional."
"The Minnesota Soldiers have different ways of working on projects like these, but I believe working together makes things better because we are learning a lot from each other," Strunje said. "I am very thankful for this cooperation."
Zubak agreed with Strunje's positive assessment of the State Partnership Program.
"The overall partnership between Croatia and Minnesota has been valuable," Zubak said. "First and foremost, it's allowed us to exchange experiences and improve each other. Second, it has given our Soldiers the opportunity to meet and work together. Because we may meet again in the future, we're in a better position having already experienced working together."
"The partnership is also a good thing because we've come closer to having a more integrated force, through NATO developments and our continued partnership and joint training," Zubak said.
"As a NATO country, we benefit from sharing experiences and developing joint standard operating procedures. The training also allows us to see how things work in practice, compare processes, and even see where we stand as a force."
Zubak said he was pleased to have this opportunity.
"I'm very glad that when all of this is said and done, I will have met, and worked with, about 40 soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard."