From the Lakes of Minnesota to the Coast of Norway–NOREX 43 Trains By the Sea

July 9, 2016 (CAMP VARNES, Norway) — The Minnesota National Guard’s 43rd Norwegian Reciprocal Troop Exchange came to a close on June 30, 2016, as more than 100 Soldiers and Airmen from the Minnesota National Guard, along with one Danish soldier and one Swedish soldier, departed from Camp Varnes, Norway, to return to their respected home stations upon completion of a successful mission.

Though the exchange has historically conducted winter survival training in the mountains of Norway, this year's NOREX was the second summer program in the history of the exchange. The summer training offered a unique opportunity for members of the Minnesota National Guard to learn to live and survive in a coastal, maritime environment in Trondelag, Norway.  <br />
The Norwegian Home Guard was instrumental in providing top-notch training in a survival camp setting. The training consisted of constructing a "gapahuk" (lean-to shelter) out of wood and other resources, making fire with the use of magnesium sticks, bivouac skills, canoe familiarization and water rescue training, learning to catch and prepare a meal from local food sources in the sea--mainly fish, muscles, and crab - and familiarization with Norwegian field equipment. <br />

Air Force Master Sgt. Kirk Suonvieri, a returning NOREX veteran from the 2010 exchange, shared his thoughts about training with the Norwegian Home Guard. “The thing that impressed me most is how the Norwegian senior officers are so humble and approachable. They give you great instruction that is well detailed, and then you do it and if you mess it up they’re not shouting at you, they just show you,” he explained. “Humility is an amazing thing because it humbles you, yourself.”

In contrast, Army Spc. Yontonson Kesselly experienced many firsts during the summer exchange. Kesselly remarked that canoe familiarization and water rescue training was the most memorable event for him because it was his first time doing that kind of training. "I was afraid to go in the water at one point in time, but they found out I have a background from Africa, and that's a means of transportation in most of the remote spots in Africa so it was amazing to see myself doing that in Norway, and it was fun."   <br />
During the latter portion of the field exercise, the troops witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime sighting one evening while fishing of the Royal Yacht Norge, the vessel belonging to King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway. Both the King and Queen were aboard the Norge in connection with their official visit to Trondheim the next day. The troops waved to them as the Norge passed by, silhouetted by the glowing midnight sun. Someone aboard the Norge waved back to the troops--though it is unknown who--it made for an unforgettable moment.  <br />
Throughout the exchange, Soldiers and Airmen also participated in various team-building activities ranging from zip lining through the mountains of Trondelag, to competing in a platoon-level Fish Soup cooking contest while in a field environment, and hiking up Tonnol Mountain. Motivation and morale were high as the troops frequently shouted, "god stemning!" (good atmosphere) while engaged in the activities.  <br />
Army Spc. Christen Marchio reflected on her biggest take-away from the teambuilding activities. "It took teamwork to make sure everybody got up the mountain as safely as possible and got back down safely as well. It was nice to have that camaraderie and teamwork to accomplish something that was not as easy as it might have looked in the beginning." <br />
Spc. Casey Giordano added, "Climbing up there, seeing the sheer drop to the fjords below was absolutely incredible. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat." When asked what advice he had for future NOREX troops he said, "Be sure to go out of your comfort zone because that's where all of the best experiences come from." <br />
In addition to coastal survival training, the American contingent learned about Norwegian history and experienced Norwegian culture. Such opportunities were presented through buddy weekend, when American troops stayed with Norwegian host families for a weekend. Troops also visited several historical sites, including Austraat Fortress, Vaernes Church, Stiklestad, Kristiansten Fortress, and Nidaros Cathedral. <br />
"It's a rich heritage and it's a very old countryside. Their buildings far surpass any historical items we have," said Maj. Jeramy Browning, NOREX officer-in-charge. "It's a very amazing experience."  <br />
There were also the traditional NOREX events: American Meal night--with food provided by Serving Our Troops and with this year's contingent dressed in motorcycle attire; Viking night--with everyone adorned in their potato sack Viking couture and Viking helmets as the platoons presented hand-made gifts to the Viking chieftain, competed in Viking games, and feasted on traditional Norwegian food; and the farewell banquet--where toasts were given to thank the Norwegian Home Guard for their hospitality, dedication, and continued friendship.   <br />
Much like the exchanges of years past, memories were made, bonds were strengthened, and life-long friendships were formed. And now as a way forward, alternating between summer and winter programs will continue to build upon these themes, further promoting military diversity, and will continue to present troops with exceptional military training and cultural opportunities in both host nations.  <br />
It is clear that what began as a handshake agreement many years ago continues to foster strong ties of community between our two nations that cannot be broken, even by distance.  <br />
"The strong connections and friendships, between people from Minnesota and Norway, we built in two weeks is awesome," said Major Gard Ommedal, Chief of the Rapid Reaction Force, Home Guard 12. "It's like hosting family, and family is always welcome."  <br />
 As they say in Norway--it's not goodbye, it's "vi sees." (see you)  <br />

by Maj. Georgette Danczyk
133rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs