WASHINGTON - Twenty-four Albanian Soldiers are training in New Jersey at a first-of-its-kind officer candidate school conducted by the Army National Guard.
It's the first time Albanian non-commissioned officers have been given the opportunity to become officers and the first officer candidate school, known as OCS, the National Guard has conducted for foreign troops on American soil.
The OCS program, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, was established under New Jersey's State Partnership Program, or SPP, with Albania. New Jersey Guard members have been training with Albanian troops for more than 20 years under SPP. Overall, the SPP pairs different National Guard commands with 74 countries around the globe.
When Albania's military academy closed, officials began to look for another way to train officers. Two years ago, they turned to their SPP partners, and began asking about the OCS program.
"They wanted a 12-week program like [the one] at Fort Benning (Georgia)," said Capt. Matthew Zilinski, senior platoon training officer of New Jersey's OCS program for the Albanians.
The 24 Albanians are now in Phase III of the OCS program, which began May 9. This final month they spend much of their time in the field on lanes training, running obstacle courses and conducting leadership reaction training, before graduating July 29.
"We're building them up the way we'd build an American officer," Zilinski said, explaining that the 18-hour days, tough standards and stress was a bit of a "culture shock" at first for some of the Albanians. At home, they were used to eight-hour days and returning to their families at night.
The Albanians came prepared, though, Zilinski said. They underwent a 12-week zero phase, back in Albania, to prepare physically and sharpen their knowledge of English and U.S. culture. Zilinski said some of them came knowing the Army's physical training program better than U.S. Soldiers.
The OCS program is being conducted by New Jersey's 254th Regiment (Combat Arms), the same unit that is graduating a regular OCS class of New Jersey Guard members this month.
Of the 24 Albanians, 16 are actually already lieutenants and eight are NCOs. The lieutenants just wanted to see how the U.S. Army trains its officers so they could possibly replicate the course back home, said Albanian 2nd Lt. Hekuran Budani, one of the OCS students.
The eight NCOs will be the first in the Albanian armed forces to become lieutenants, when they graduate. Until now, the only way to become an Albanian officer was to graduate from a university.
Sgt. Marjana Kotarja is one of the Albanian OCS candidates who hopes to become an officer.
"We hope we make a big change for our country," Kotarja said.
"The NCOs don't have a proper role," in the Albanian Army, she said, adding that she wants to return home and make a difference. "I want to make things better in Albania."
Budani said lessons he will take home include the format of the U.S. Army after-action report, and the attention to detail that the OCS program instilled in him.
He will also take back an understanding of how the National Guard works - a program which Albania doesn't have - and an appreciation of American culture after visiting Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.
"Things are changing now that Albania is in NATO," Budani said.
"Hopefully it will change the paradigm in Albania," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Patrick Daugherty, public affairs officer for the New Jersey National Guard.
"They are by far the best of the best," Daugherty said about the officer candidates from Albania. He said they are all top-notch Soldiers and bilingual, speaking English well.
They are the first group to be trained in the U.S. under what Daugherty says is a five-year agreement between New Jersey and Albania. He expects to host another Albanian OCS class next summer, and said he wouldn't be surprised if other states don't follow suit with their partners.
"I've got a feeling that we might be a test bed," Daugherty said.
The National Guard Bureau has interest in the OCS program, and is watching it closely.
"New Jersey is the first to initiate that exchange, but we will look at that program for the best practices," said Lt. Col. Mary Zajac, acting division chief for International Affairs at the National Guard Bureau.
"Our senior leadership has been very supportive of looking into ways to use our professional military education venues to assist in our partnerships with SPP," Zajac added.