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A cross-Pacific partnership

Post by Scott Fontaine on Sep. 30, 2009 at 4:49 pm |
September 30, 2009 4:49 pm

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RICHLAND — ­ To learn how to better secure their country’s most important deepwater port, visitors from Thailand traveled to the baked desert of central Washington, thanks to a program that links Washington National Guardsmen with their counterparts from Asia.

A group of about 25 people ­ Thai bureaucrats, first responders, and U.S. military officials ­ toured the Hammer Training Facility at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation last week. There, they learned about a range of training courses, such as how to scan for traces of radiation to properly scrub down chemical suits after cleaning up a hazardous spill.

Friday’s visit was one of dozens in Washington and Thailand each year through the National Guard’s State Partnership Program, which links each of the 50 states with a different country. The program has received little notice but hopes to strengthen military, government and civilian ties between the U.S. and its allies.

“This is all about building relationships from the ground up,” said Army Maj. Wil Johnston, the program director for the Washington National Guard, whose office is at Camp Murray south of Tacoma. “We take what we know and we share it with them. We’re training their trainers so it has that ripple effect.”

Washington has partnered with Thailand since 2002 to help train its civilian and military officials in activities that National Guard units specialize in when they’re not off fighting wars: emergency management, disaster planning, port security, hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction response and airport security.

The partners participated in a string of exercises in February. Thai first responders reacted to hazardous-material spills and mock attacks to the Port of Laem Chabang with a “dirty bomb” ­ a conventional bomb packed with radioactive material.

spp2During the exercises, officials from Washington helped refine the Thais’ ability to communicate during a response, increase their decontamination capabilities and better care for patients possibly suffering from the effects of the radioactive explosion.

“The Washington-Thailand partnership has become the model for all Pacific Command partnerships,” said Air Force Col. Scott Elder, a military advisor stationed in Bangkok. “It has succeeded in creating interagency approaches to disaster response and terrorism response.”

The State Partnership Program began in 1993 to link states with European countries, especially those emerging from decades of Communist rule. It has since been expanded to 61 partnerships with countries across the globe.

The Thai and American militaries do about 40 joint operations each year, Elder said. The largest of these is Operation Cobra Gold, a two-week annual exercise that Fort Lewis’ I Corps often attends.

Delegates from the two countries hold another 25-30 seminars annually, Elder said. Many focus on disaster response and counterterrorism operations.

Washington’s program costs a little more than $300,000 per year, said Johnston, who has gone five times to Thailand this year. The 39-year-old Oregon native helped set up last week’s tour of the Hammer facility for officials from two of Thailand’s major ports, members of its national-security council, officials from its disaster-response agency, firefighters, and nurses specializing in chemical and nuclear decontamination.

Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, the adjutant general of the Washington National Guard, in a speech last year offered the State Partnership Program as an example of rising importance of using “soft power,” or nonviolent means, to effect change.

Thailand has long been an ally of the United States; it contributed troops to the Iraq war, and its airbases were used as staging grounds for humanitarian missions to neighboring countries. But it sits in a politically sensitive part of the world.

Bordering Thailand is Myanmar, which is ruled by a military junta known for its repressive tactics. And nearby is Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

“What’s good for Thailand is good for us,” said Elder, who has worked 13 years in Thailand. “If they are weak because of, say, a natural disaster, they are less able to help out themselves and us with stopping the spread of terrorism.”

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