By Staff Sgt. Mike R. Smith, Guard Times Staff
PRETORIA, South Africa – Getting the opportunity to train in South Africa seems like a lifetime experience for any National Guardsman. So when South Africa, New York’s partner in the National Guard State Partnership Program, was chosen for European Command’s MEDFLAG 2004 exercise, Airmen jumped forward to participate.
“This was the first time a contingent of New York Air Guard personnel joined the exercise, and it was a great chance to work with our new partners,” said Lt. Col. Patrick Roemer, 107th Air Refueling Wing civil engineer commander.
Colonel Roemer and 30 Airmen from the 107th as well as the 109th Airlift Wing, 105th Airlift Wing, 106th Rescue Wing and the Northeast Air Defense Sector endured the 20-hour flight to the southern tip of the African continent to team up with active duty Airmen from 3rd Air Force.
There, the group served alongside their South African counterparts in medical, logistics, civil engineer, and command and control teams operating at the Ditholo Training Base and Hoedspruit Air Base, outside Pretoria.
“This year’s exercise was led by 3rd Air Force and was broken into interoperability training, humanitarian and civic assistance and a mass casualty exercise,” said Roemer.
MEDFLAG exercises are held at least twice a year in the democratic countries of Africa, deploying a team of doctors, dentists, technicians and support personnel to provide joint medical training and humanitarian assistance.
At the Ditholo Training Base, Airman operated a joint task force command and control center. They provided logistical, medical and public affairs support for MEDFLAG and participated in a humanitarian disaster exercise.
“The public affairs team handled visits from more than 30 media outlets, coordinated news releases from the field and produced three joint newsletters,” said Maj. Jody Ankabrandt, 109th Airlift Wing public affairs officer. The major went on to say that besides public affairs work, distinguished visitors were escorted, a cultural awareness day was planned and humanitarian assistance was provided to a local orphanage.
“We really came together with our South African counterparts to produce some outstanding public affairs work,” she said. “What we brought in the form of expertise paled next to the heartfelt experiences we brought home,” she said.
New York medical Airmen at the Hoedspruit Air Base supported a MEDFLAG first — setting a record number of humanitarian and civic assistance visits when joint forces medical personnel treated more than 6,000 villagers at their forward operating clinics.
“It was a life-changing experience for some of our medics,” said Maj. Richard Sloma, New York State Partnership program coordinator. “Any perceptions they had about the country were changed when they arrived and met the people of South Africa,” he said. He explained that medical personnel enjoyed the chance to see the immediate effect their medical efforts had on the South African’s lives.
Sloma said that they found a country much like the U.S. and unlike many of the stereotypes seen at home.
Eight additional Air National Guard Airmen from Rhode Island, Georgia, Delaware, and Virginia supported the exercise and worked seamlessly with medical and logistics personnel. Overall, the majority of the Air Guard team were medical folks, but valuable support was also provided by information technology, logistics, and public affairs/protocol airmen, said Sloma.
Sloma went on to say that future events with South Africa through the State Partnership Program are forthcoming and include an air show in September where units are scheduled to provide C-130, KC-135, HH-60 Pave Hawk and an F-16 static display aircraft for the Water Kloof Air Base Airshow. Nine other events are scheduled for 2005, so more Guardsmen will have the opportunity to build relationships.