TRØNDELAG, Norway - More than 100 Minnesota National Guard Airmen and Soldiers partnered with the Heimevernet, the Norwegian Home Guard, for two weeks of winter warfare training during the 50th U.S./Norway Reciprocal Troop Exchange Feb. 2-16.
More commonly known as NOREX, the exchange is the Defense Department’s longest-running troop exchange. The Minnesota Guard and Norway are also partners as part of the Department of Defense National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program.
“When I was selected to attend NOREX, I had two goals,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Megan Shaner of the 148th Fighter Wing. “First, to see the beautiful land and culture of Norway — it has been a lifelong dream to visit the land my family came from. Second, to build lasting friendships with our Norwegian Home Guard partners and strengthen the connection between Minnesota and Norway.”
Before deploying for a field exercise deep in the Norwegian mountains, the Home Guard trainers spent two days preparing the Minnesota National Guard members for the harsh conditions. Shedding their American uniforms after being issued Norwegian uniforms, the Minnesotans quickly learned of the efficiency of it in cold conditions. They also learned how to use Norwegian tents, stoves, skis and other equipment.
In the field
Traveling several hours deep into the mountains marked the beginning of a five-day field training exercise that tested the Guard members’ newly acquired skills. The platoons split into tent teams of eight — seven Americans and one Norwegian Home Guard trainer. The groups relied on each other for survival.
After skiing 3 kilometers from the drop-off location in Haltdalen, the teams arrived at their first field location and set up tents, built snow walls to break gusting winds, and created bathroom locations. The tents became temporary homes where the inhabitants shared Norwegian field rations, slept in tight quarters for warmth, and shared stories of the day’s accomplishments.
Day Two provided new challenges as the Airmen and Soldiers learned skijoring, avalanche rescue training, and survival training from their Norwegian counterparts before building a bonfire for their first hot meal of the field exercise, hot dogs.
Day Three allowed for one of the most memorable experiences of the entire exercise. As the Minnesotans packed up their first camp and ventured further up the mountains, another aspect of survival training greeted them at the halfway point: cold water rescue training.
The event prepared the Airmen and Soldiers for their reaction if they were to fall through the ice during military missions.
Back in warm and dry clothes, the contingent finished their ski trek to their second field location and repeated the same setup routines as Day One.
Day Four brought severe weather that threatened the ability of the Norwegians to teach Minnesotans the art of digging snow caves into the side of mountains for shelter. The Airmen and Soldiers switched their focus to building up snow walls surrounding each tent to sustain severe overnight weather.
Before 45 mph wind gusts arrived, the platoons came together to enjoy a Norwegian delicacy, reindeer stew.
As a windy night gave way to morning, the last day of field training arrived and the Americans put their downhill skiing to the test to descend the mountains.
When the troops and their instructors emerged from the field, traveling back to the ocean coast, they were welcomed by faces familiar to Minnesota service members. Volunteers from the Saint Paul-based civic organization Serving Our Troops had arrived, preparing a welcome treat — a steak dinner with all the fixings.
“Having a group of volunteers dedicated to supporting us like this, coming all the way to Norway to help us celebrate this partnership and our 50th exchange is amazing!” said U.S. Air Force 1st Sgt. Sterling Hartwick, who served as the American contingent’s first sergeant. “It’s another reminder of the importance of the connections we make both at home and abroad.”
In addition to the invaluable skills learned during the training, Guard members also experienced Norwegian culture and history.
Airmen and Soldiers were invited into the homes of their Norwegian host families for a weekend of activities chosen by their hosts.
After the weekend, the platoons reunited for cultural visits to nearby Stiklestad and Trondheim. The Minnesotans learned about the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, where King Olaf II Haraldsson, more famously known as St. Olaf, fell in the battle. While visiting Trondheim the following day, the troops toured Nidaros Cathedral before exploring one of Norway’s oldest cities.
“Our Home Guard hosts have provided us with deeply meaningful training experiences. Not only have we learned winter survival on the mountain, but they have infused our lessons with the rich history of the people of Norway,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Megan Shaner of the 148th Fighter Wing. “I will be forever grateful for the time they invested into our training.”
While the Minnesota Guard members were away, Norwegian Home Guard and Youth members participated in similar training and cultural experiences in Minnesota, including at Camp Ripley.
“Honestly, I think I will be drawing from every experience I have had when I return to my unit,” said Shaner. “I have absolutely enjoyed every minute of the trip. I don’t think I have stopped smiling since our plane landed in Værnes!”