18-year mission with Mongolian counterparts comes to an end

Lt. Col. Steve Wilson poses for a photo with his Mongolian counterparts in Iraq in 2004. Wilson was the first liaison to accompany the Mongolian Armed Forces on a deployment during the Global War on Terrorism as part of the state partnership program. The SPP is a program that links a state’s National Guard with the armed forces or equivalent of a partner country in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship. (Courtesy photo)

by Spc. Grace Nechanicky

State partner liaisons redeploy to Alaska for the final time.

Although they didn’t know it when they left their home state in the heat of the pandemic seven months ago, Alaska Army National Guard Capt. Jessica Miller, a registered nurse with the Medical Detachment, and Sgt. 1st Class Juan Restrepo, a logistician in Joint Force Headquarters, were going to be the last rotation of Alaska National Guard liaisons accompanying the Mongolian Expeditionary Task Force to Afghanistan. They flew home to Alaska July 21, 2021, as the final redeployers of the mission that debuted 18 years ago.

The partnership between Alaska and Mongolia was officially formalized in early 2003. Shortly afterwards, the Mongolian Armed Forces deployed troops to the Polish base, Camp Charlie, in Al Hillah, Iraq as part of the multi-national security force supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After seeing the Illinois National Guard liaisons embedded with their Polish counterparts, the MAF requested that the Alaska National Guard send support in the same manner.

Retired Lt. Col. Steve Wilson departed Alaska for a one-year tour in Iraq in 2004 on the first advising team to support the MAF’s request for AKNG liaisons. This spurred a continual annual rotation of AKNG and MAF deployed together, which would grow to be the longest forward deployed operational partnership of any state partnership program.

“The mission was to advise and assist the Mongolian commander and his expeditionary forces in all interactions with U.S. forces and other coalition units,” said Wilson. “We would help advise mostly in operations and logistics.”

By embedding with the MAF in Iraq, it optimized their integration with the U.S. and coalition forces that were supporting security operations, according to Wilson. It also helped highlight their valuable support to the coalition operations.

“I think it reassured the Mongolians that because we had American Soldiers embedded in that unit, that we were solving the problems of Iraqi security together as one team,” said Wilson.

Five years later, in 2009, the MAF transitioned their troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, and the Alaska Army National Guard liaisons followed.

One member of the first team in Afghanistan was Brig. Gen. Wayne Don, director of Joint Staff for the Alaska National Guard. Being the first liaison team transitioning to the new country brought some challenges.

“Any time you bring a bunch of militaries together as part of a coalition, there can be some logistical and resourcing challenges,” said Don. “Initially, one of the biggest challenges for us over there was getting ammunition for the type of equipment they had.

“We eventually got it figured out,” Don continued. “The Mongolians in Iraq were on a Polish base and did such a great job over there. The Polish have like ammo for their equipment, and because they felt such gratitude and affection for the Mongolians and their efforts in Iraq, they actually found a bunch of extra ammunition to provide for them.”

Don explained that it was relationships like those that helped foster the functioning of the coalition.

“As a participating country, the Mongolians put a condition on their participation that we had to go with them, which is a tremendous nod to the trust within our relationship, both in our countries and our militaries,” said Don. “I don’t recall seeing other participating countries that had that similar relationship.”

For the next decade, the Alaska Army National Guard continued to send liaison teams comprised of one noncommissioned officer and an officer to assist and advise the MAF in the Global War on Terrorism in Afghanistan.

Finally, in November of 2020, Miller and Restrepo embarked on their mission overseas as liaisons, but this rotation did not look like the previous ones for many reasons.

“Our mission first was to make sure that the Mongolians had all of the supplies that they needed: hand sanitizer, PPE, masks, wipes, and stuff like that,” said Miller. “They were the security force on New Kabul Compound where we were stationed, so they came into contact with Afghans, the British, the Scottish, the Danes, lots of different people. So, we had to make sure they were fully protected.”

In addition to the unique challenges brought on by COVID-19 of finding limited resources, Miller and Restrepo started to see New Kabul Compound dwindle in numbers of personnel as the camp was shutting down.

“From December to April, lots of people were still going home, so we saw a shortage of personnel as well as resources,” said Miller. “We actually didn’t find out until about April that we were closing the camp.”

The Mongolian soldiers at last returned to their home country the first week of June this year.

“We coordinated with the U.S. Embassy and the general staff in Mongolia to get all of their cargo that they’ve had ever since they started supporting the mission in Afghanistan,” said Miller. “They had quite a bit of gear.”

Additionally, Miller and Restrepo were responsible for coordinating the MAF flights back to Mongolia, COVID-19 testing, and ensuring that all cargo and personnel made it back smoothly.

“It’s extremely humbling [to be the final rotation],” said Miller. “I’m very, very grateful that I was chosen for this mission. The impact that Alaska has had with Mongolia is very positive, and I think that this mission was very significant in strengthening that relationship.”

After 18 continuous years, what started out as a professional partnership for many, has now grown into something lasting.

“The partnership originally began as a strong relationship, which eventually evolved into a friendship,” said Wilson, “So, connections were made, and I still keep in correspondence with my Mongolian friends that I deployed with to Iraq in 2004 and 2005.”