Gathering marks 50-year relationship of Minn. National Guard, Norwegian Home Guard

A dignified, full-dress ceremony in St. Paul Saturday night marked a very special celebration — a 50-year partnership between the Minnesota National Guard and the Norwegian Home Guard.  

“So today really gives us the authority and the recognition from the Department of Defense for a state partnership program,” declared Major General Shawn Manke, from the Minnesota National Guard.

For a half-century now, the two forces have switched out training.

Each year, about 100 Minnesota Guard members travel to Norway, and a like number of the Norwegian Home Guard come to Camp Ripley.

Minnesota members have been in Norway since Feb. 3, and Norwegian members are due to arrive at the camp on Sunday.

“It entrusts goodwill, relationships, everything,” says Major General Elisabeth Michelsen, the chief of the Norwegian Home Guard. “Then we understand each other and have a good relationship. Good ally.”

The program, called the Norwegian Reciprocal Exchange, or NOREX for short, is the longest-running partnership of its kind in the world.

“It means a lot, it does a lot,” explains Eivind Aastorp, a Norwegian Home Guard Youth member. “Seeing how the Americans use military winter survival gear. Experiencing the American military, experiencing culture, it does a lot for our understanding of our relationship and how we can work better together.”

So far, 8,000 soldiers from both countries have participated in the program.

The two-week sessions include weapons drills, shelter building, and even ski training.

“It’s all about surviving in the snow and skiing and start operating and doing your mission,” notes Minnesota Guard Master Sergeant Leon Patterson.

He says the roots of the exchange program began during World War II.

“The 99th from Minnesota and Wisconsin trained soldiers in Colorado in WWII,” Patterson explains. “They did sabotage missions, ‘cos back then, Norway was occupied by Germany, the Nazi regime.”

On Saturday, Governor Walz signed a letter of intent adding Norway as a partner in the state partnership program.

The Defense Department initiative pairs the National Guard of a U.S. state or territory with a partner nation’s military, security forces, and government agencies responsible for emergency and disaster response.

The governor is scheduled to travel to Norway the week of Feb. 15 for the official signing of that agreement.

“You’ll never forget your training, you’ll never forget the people,” Walz, a 24-year National Guard veteran says. “You’ll never forget the northern lights.”

Experts say the program sharpens combat skills and improves military readiness.

They say it also fosters cultural understanding and life-long relationships.

“I think a lot of times, when Norwegians come to the U.S., especially places like Seattle or Minnesota, into the Midwest, there’s a lot of surprise and pride at how much people carried forth their traditions,” says Ellen Ahlness, a researcher with the Veterans Health Administration. “Really pivoting to the future is the evolving interest in Arctic and winter training, that an area that both Norway and the United States have a lot of interest in, the National Guard in the military moving forward.”