JOHNSTON, Iowa - Forty-seven Iowa National Guard Soldiers and Airmen recently returned home from the first official staff ride to Kosovo, where young Iowa leaders fostered relationships with colleagues from the Kosovo Security Force (KSF), immersing themselves in the rich history, culture and formation of this Balkan republic.
As part of the Iowa and Kosovo State Partnership Program (SPP), Soldiers and Airmen visited KSF military facilities in Pristina and Mitrovica, explored the city of Prizren and its fortress, and learned about significant, historical battles fought within this region.
KSF members shared their experiences from the Kosovo War, an ethnic armed conflict which lasted from February 1998 until June 1998, and how, with the help of the United States and other allied nations, Kosovo was able to recover, rebuild and declare its independence on Feb. 17, 2008.
During the battle site tour, Sgt. Maj. Xhafer Preteni, a personnelist with the KSF Operational Support Brigade and veteran of the war, shared his first-hand experiences in the 39-day Battle of Mitrovica. As he finished, he acknowledged, "I thank you for all of your support, from this specific Mitrovica battle, to the U.S. Army and to all the support, we are grateful."
Service members from both countries were able to build and expand relationships with their international counterparts. Since March 2011, Iowa has engaged with the Republic of Kosovo as part of the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, assisting the KSF in improving their capacity and capabilities, as well as disaster response and emergency management.
While adopting and institutionalizing basic training and unit leadership concepts critical to the development of Kosovo's security force, Maj. Gen. Tim Orr, the adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard, is working to build a "Whole of Iowa to Whole of Kosovo" relationship.
Kosovo views this partnership as its most important security cooperation milestone since its independence and the formation of the KSF. As these sister-states continue these exchanges, the ultimate goal is to promote regional security, regional cooperation, and a safe and secure Europe.
"As our National Guard forces transition out of their careers, we need seamless replacement of our future partnership Guardsmen to continue the success of our partnership with the KSF," said Chief Master Sgt. Tim Cochran, State Command Chief Master Sgt. of the Iowa Air National Guard.
There were many opportunities for Iowans and KSF members to educate each other. Thus far, Iowa National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have advised the KSF in areas such as building their Non-Commissioned Officer corps, exercise planning, annual training, standard operating procedures, and staff engagement. In return, the KSF has shared their core missions of fire-fighting, hazardous material handling, explosive ordnance disposal, and search and rescue.
"We hope to have this partnership for a long time," said Sgt. Major Ilir Rama, a nurse technician in the KSF Medical Company. "We now have the opportunity to learn with each other. It's good opportunity, if we continue."
Following more than five years of joint meetings, this partnership has grown from simply getting to know each other, to improving interoperability and capabilities, enhancing principles of responsible governance, and creating strong international bonds.
According to 1st Lt. Fitore Fazliu, Executive Officer of the KSF Operational Support Brigade, the partnership has become "much stronger. We even have contacts and [continued] relations with the U.S. I have other officer friends that we meet [with] and go out [with] when they come for training."
In the eight years since declaring its independence, the citizens of Kosovo have rebuilt villages and towns scarred by violence and conflict. In the process, they've also built an independent nation, with a rather rocky history, but one whose future is bright and unified. Surrounding nations are becoming more aware of this republic's efforts to create peace and tranquility, both within its borders and beyond.
Maj. Jodi Marti, an Iowa Army National Guard Soldier currently serving as the Bi-lateral Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo, has been managing SPP events between Iowa and Kosovo. She explained the transformation she has seen during her tenure,
"I think the regional and international engagement in this State Partnership Program has actually been pretty amazing. Regional partners seem to be accepting Kosovo and the KSF more than they ever have. There is a partnership: military to military, civilian to military, and civilian to civilian. To be doing these things regionally and internationally at this age, it's pretty impressive," she said.
While the staff ride lasted only three days, this tour, which began as an opportunity to learn and network, ended with respect, admiration and gratitude. Above all, it ended with trust, camaraderie, and a much deeper appreciation for the challenges each nation has faced and overcome.
"We have some challenges," said Lt. Gen. Rrahman Rama, KSF Commander, "but together we can do it."