Minnesota, Norway partner for 50th troop exchange

TRØNDELAG, Norway — More than 100 Minnesota National Guard Airmen and Soldiers are partnering 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, 2023. More commonly known as NOREX, the exchange continues to be the longest-running troop exchange in the U.S. Department of Defense.

“When I was selected to attend NOREX, I had two goals,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Megan Shaner of the Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing. “First, to see the beautiful land and culture of Norway—it has been a life-long 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 were broken into tent teams of eight, seven Americans and one Norwegian Home Guard trainer. The groups relied on each other for survival.

After skiing three kilometers from the drop off location in Haltdalen, the teams arrived at their first field location and immediately leaned on their training to set up their tent, build snow walls to break gusting winds, and work within their platoons to create bathroom locations. The tents became temporary homes for their eight inhabitants where Norwegian field rations were shared, tight sleeping quarters created warmth, and stories of the day’s accomplishments created unmatched camaraderie.

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 into 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 set up routines as day one.

Day four brought severe weather that threatened the ability for 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 towards building up their snow walls surrounding each tent in order to sustain the severe weather expected overnight. 

Prior to the arrival of 45 mile per hour gusting winds, all of 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 that had become their temporary homes. 

American meal

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 of 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.”

For more than 20 years, Serving Our Troops has provided, as their motto states, a simple thing: dinner with family. The group has traveled globally to serve Minnesota troops overseas and their families back at home.

Cultural exchange

In addition to the invaluable skills learned during the training, Guard members also had opportunities to experience and learn from 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. The members were placed with families who shared similar interests as the troops. 

Upon returning from the weekend, the platoons reunited for cultural visits to nearby Stiklestad and Trondheim. In Stiklestad, 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 having time to explore 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 Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing. “I will be forever grateful for the time they invested into our training!”

While the Minnesota Guard members are away, a like number of Norwegian Home Guard and Youth members participate in similar training and cultural experiences in Minnesota, to include 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!”

Army Staff Sgt. Bill Boecker

Sr. Master Sgt. Glen Flanagan

Air Force Capt. Ellen McNair

Sgt. 1st Class Ben Houtkooper

Minnesota National Guard Public Affairs