NEWS | July 29, 2015

New York Guard couple pack for South Africa to further State Partnership Program

By Master Sgt. Raymond Drumsta New York National Guard

CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. - A New York Army National Guard couple is off to the other side of the world for two years of duty and adventure.

Maj. Brian Bonanno, his wife Maj. Amy Bonanno, and their two young children are heading to Pretoria, South Africa, where Brian will be the liaison officer for the New York Army National Guard and South Africa State Partnership Program.

The State Partnership Program is a way for American states to create positive relationships with many nations. New York National Guard troops have been training with South African forces since 2003.

"I'll be the one on the ground, coordinating all the State Partnership Program activities," Brian explained. Those activities mainly involve knowledge-sharing among New York National Guard military and South African military professionals, he added.

The two combat veterans, currently both traditional Guard staff officers in the New York Army National Guard's 42nd Infantry Division, are looking forward to the trip with a mixture of excitement and natural concern. It's about a quarter of the way around the world, Brian estimated.

"I've never set foot on the continent of Africa," he said. "I hear the people (of South Africa) there are warm and welcoming."

Amy, who will be taking care of their children and finishing her masters degree thesis while in South Africa, described the country as a "whole new world" that's outside their comfort zone.

"It's not a deployment to a war zone," she stressed. "But it is a deployment with our kids."

The Clifton Park couple knows deployments to war zones, and they've also traveled extensively overseas for military and military-training operations.

Brian, an Iraq veteran and Yonkers New York native, has also served in Kuwait, Kazakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Amy, an Afghan veteran who was raised in Rochester, New York, has also served in Rumania and Brazil.

Their overseas duties have set them up for success in South Africa, they said.

In 2012, for instance, Brian was the U.S. Army Central Commands's liaison officer to the UAE land forces, facilitating military-to-military engagements and other activities.

"It's kind of the reason I got this job," he said. "It was a very eye-opening experience. I thrived on it. I loved it."

Both militaries respond to disasters and humanitarian crises, and that's just an example of the kind of knowledge they'll be exchanging, he explained.

"We want to spread freedom and democracy," Brian said. "We want to work with allies around the world who are well-trained and equipped."

Though it's still experiencing some growing pains, South Africa is a unique, developing nation that has come a long way in a short time, Brian said. Such alliances save American lives and American tax dollars, he emphasized.

"The better our allies are, the better we are," he said. "I'm really looking forward to working with our counterparts over there."

Being a liaison officer involves a great many major and minor details, and has its own challenges and rewards, Brian said. People skills are a big plus, he added, recalling the time he was a liaison officer to the UAE.

"You're the person both sides are coming to for answers," he said.

Amy's thesis, which is on deterring violent extremism, is required to complete her master's degree from the Naval Post Graduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security. She already has a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Oswego and a master's degree from Rockefeller College at Albany.

They're also seeing to their children's' education. Their 5-year old son Brian will be attending a satellite school of the American International School in Johannesburg, and they plan to enroll their two-year-old daughter Grace in a Montessori school after they arrive.

They can be choosy because Montessori schools are more plentiful in South Africa than New York - but they want to look them over first, Brian said.

"There's only so much you can see from a website," he said.

They also hope the trip itself will be a once-in-lifetime learning opportunity for their children.

"We're very excited for the kids," Brian said.

Though she's a little worried, she hopes the children will adapt, make friends and come home with great memories, Amy said.

"Maybe they'll have a sense of adventure as they get older," she said.