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COMMENTARY — Kentucky still working well with foreign partners

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By MAJ. GUS LAFONTAINE

Twenty summers ago, I enlisted in the Kentucky Army National Guard.

While I prepared to begin Initial Entry Training, my unit — 2123rd Transportation Company — participated in Operation Nuevos Horizontes (New Horizons) in Ecuador, South America.

Upon returning from basic training, I recall listening to the compelling stories that came from this collaborative mission. I admit, there was some envy as I listened to fellow truck drivers talk about transporting equipment on the South American continent.

For a kid from small-town Berea, the grandiosity of trekking across a foreign country was hard for me to comprehend. The thought of participating in such a mission was exciting. However, it wasn’t to be that summer. My enlistment was one year late.

Fast forward 20 years.

I’ve since had many opportunities to “trek across foreign countries” in this uniform. Recently, I returned from Djibouti, where I accompanied a contingent of Soldiers and Airmen from the Kentucky National Guard. The delegation visited with military leaders, diplomats and government officials from the eastern African country.

Like the mission in Ecuador 20 years ago, the mission to Djibouti was part of the State Partnership Program. The SPP began in 1993 as a Department of Defense effort to leverage the National Guard component of each state to cultivate relationships with foreign countries. One goal of these partnerships is to extend the influence of the United States throughout the world.

Currently, 74 state partnerships stretch across Europe, Central and South America, Asia and Africa. Kentucky continues to enjoy the partnership with Ecuador that enabled Operation Nuevos Horizontes. At 22 years, it’s one of the longest partnerships that has existed in the program. In 2015, Kentucky became state partners with Djibouti. The African country, which is approximately the size of New Jersey, strategically sits at the Horn of Africa.

Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell recently said, “Diplomacy is listening to what the other guy needs: preserving your own position, but listening to the other guy. You have to develop relationships with other people so when the tough times come, you can work together.”

Kentucky’s most recent visit to Djibouti captured Powell’s sentiment. Kentucky’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Stephen Hogan, and Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Benjamin Adams used the visit to invest in relationships with their Djiboutian counterparts. Discussions were held with regard to working together to enhance the skills of Djiboutian artillerymen. The groups collaborated to help build upon the foundation of the NCO Academy of the Djiboutian Army, and multiple meetings were held with civic leaders to reinforce existing relationships and develop new ones.

This kind of investment is yielding a mutually beneficial partnership.

The capabilities of the Djiboutian army is strengthening. Our regional presence is solidifying. A shared path is serving both parties. The Kentucky National Guard’s efforts with the Djiboutian military are gaining momentum, and friendships.

Per General Powell, when the tough times come, Kentucky will be positioned to work together with our world partners.