CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – The Washington National Guard hosted 10 pilots and helicopter maintenance technicians from the Royal Thai Army in a subject matter expert exchange (SMEE) under the State Partnership Program.
The cohort spent three weeks exchanging knowledge and expertise with their counterparts in the 96th Aviation Troop Command at the flight facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord Aug. 23-Sept. 11.
The SPP is a Department of Defense program administered by the National Guard Bureau. The program pairs the National Guard of a state or territory with the partner nation's military or other government entities. Washington has partnered with the Kingdom of Thailand since 2002. The program helps strengthen the two nation's strategic objectives in defense, government, economic and social domains.
The SMEE covered a variety of topics, including an introduction to digital maintenance software, Instrument and Visual Flight Rules simulation training, hoist operations and water bucket operations.
The goal was to learn from each other on a range of domestic flight operations. Like their Washington Guard counterparts, aviators in the Royal Thai Army fly in response to wildfires, search and rescue missions, and to support law enforcement.
There were language and communication barriers, as with any gathering that brings people together from different countries and cultures. Staff Sgt. Cameron Hartley, with Alpha Company, 341st Military Intelligence Battalion, helped ease those challenges with his skilled language abilities.
Hartley has been speaking Thai for 16 years and volunteered his services when he heard about the mission.
"Every time there's a Thai delegation that visits, or if there is an exercise taking place in Thailand, I try to volunteer for it," said Hartley. "I just love the language, the people, the culture. It also gives me a chance to practice."
His interpretation skills were a bit rusty, but things improved as the Thai delegation became more comfortable with him.
"Thais are incredibly polite, and they don't like to make people feel embarrassed, but the fact that they corrected me means that they were confident enough around me that they're not going to offend me – which ended up being incredibly helpful," said Hartley.
Another aspect of the State Partnership Program is the cultural experiences. Aside from military exchanges, the two nations love to show what makes their way of life unique.
National Guard Soldiers made sure the Thai aviators, most of whom were visiting the United States for the first time, got to experience outdoor activities.
"We took them to Mount Rainier on a five-mile hike," said Hartley. "And they got to see and experience snow for the first time – none of them had seen snow before."
The U.S. Soldiers made sure their trip was memorable. Among their other cultural experiences were the Boeing Museum of Flight, downtown Seattle, and a little taste of home at a Thai temple community event in Lacey, Washington.
Some of the Thai aviators were eager to renew ties.
"If we get to do this again, I would like to have a little more hands-on experience," said Master Sgt. Sakchai Teeramoon, a UH-72 Lakota helicopter mechanic. "I would like to work directly with my U.S. counterpart on a project."