Iowa National Guard leaders returned from a weeklong trip to the Republic of Kosovo, reaffirming the Guard’s military partnership with the emerging European democracy.
The Iowa National Guard has spent over a decade developing a close military and civil partnership with Kosovo, marking the first of its kind between a US state and an entire country.
This most recent trip focused on strengthening the Guard’s partnership with the Kosovo Security Force, according to Lt. Colonel Joel Jacobson, the state partner coordinator of the Iowa National Guard.
More:Growing Kosovo: Iowa helps build a nation from the ashes of war
On the trip, Maj. Gene. Ben Corell, the adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard, and Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Hjelmstad, the command senior enlisted leader, engaged with the Kosovo Minister of Defense Armend Mehaj and other KSF leaders on a tour of several cities of Kosovo, Capt. Kevin Waldron of the Iowa National Guard said.
In addition to providing opportunities to learn more about Kosovo’s history, traditions and culture, the trip included a joint medical exercise between the KSF and the Iowa Air National Guard’s 132nd Wing based out of Des Moines. The joint medical exercise served to prepare the KSF in its bid to achieve “Role 1” NATO verification for its military medical capabilities, Corel said.
Leaders from the KSF recently visited Iowa in May, where they toured the facilities at Camp Dodge and also observed a first-of-its-kind joint cyber competition hosted by Iowa State University.
These visits and joint exercises, according to Waldron, serve to make a tangible impact on the growth and development of Kosovo’s military forces. He said they also seek to emphasize the mutually beneficial terms of their strong partnership.
“Our ability to go and communicate with international militaries allows us to be able to perform against our adversaries in times of war,” Waldron said.
Iowa National Guard focusing on military development in Kosovo
When Maj. Gene. Ben Corell took over as leader of the state partnership in 2019, he said he wanted to focus on building Kosovo’s security forces from the ground up.
He said he developed five key “lines of effort,” which prioritizes non-commission officer development, cyber defense, maintenance and logistics, military medicine capabilities and collective infantry training with an emphasis on recruiting greater diversity into the force.
“My focus was make sure we are building trust, building the relationship,” he said. “Part of that was to really understand where the Kosovo Security Forces want to go with their military.”
Corell said visits like these are key to strengthening the partnership and helping Kosovo achieve its goal of transitioning from a security force to a strong and independent military in the next 10 years, he said.
“It’s hard to build trust through email and phone calls,” he said. “You really have to look somebody in the eye and understand their challenges.”
More:Iowa National Guard, Iowa State, Kosovo partner on cybersecurity: ‘We cannot survive alone.’
This visit in particular focused on building up the KSF’s medical care capabilities, Corel said. With the assistance of around 40 Iowa Air National Guard members from Des Moines and Sioux City, he said the KSF showcased strong capabilities in care management in emergency situations.
While the trip was a success from the standpoint of Corel’s five lines of effort, he said it also showcased the payoff of the two forces’ longstanding partnership.
“The great news of it is the relationships that have been built over time. They’ve built trust, they understand that the way we within the US military conduct operations is what they want to emulate and what they want to be trained and qualified in ,” he said.
Shared values, goals
As a part of the trip, Corel visited the hometown of Kosovo’s Minister of Defense Armend Mehaj, where he was greeted by a crowd of excited people waving American flags.
“I opened the door and stepped out of the Ford Expedition and I felt like I should be the President of the United States,” he said.
While interacting with survivors of the war and current military members, Corel said he was humbled by the sense of gratitude and appreciation Kosovars showed toward the US military. He said the trip also opened his eyes to the values that both Iowans and Kosovars hold.
“I grew up in northeast Iowa from a simple family. They worked hard and sacrificed for me and I see those same shared values within the people of Kosovo,” he said. “To me, that just draws us closer as a military and as Iowans and as Kosovars to be successful.”
Corel said his role is to focus on military development, and less on the civilian interaction between the US and Kosovo. However, he admitted these shared values and goals are what make the security partnership between the Iowa National Guard and the Republic of Kosovo truly special.
More:How the Iowa National Guard created a decade-long partnership with Kosovo
Francesca Block is a breaking news reporter at the Des Moines Register. Reach her at FBlock@registermedia.com or on Twitter at @francescablock3.