The Pennsylvania National Guard’s state partnership program with Lithuania manifests the ideals of peace through cooperation, and empathy through understanding.

The program is also an exchange of experience, expertise, culture, and ideals. The benefits of the program go way beyond those of military purpose.

“We talk about the length of the partnership and the importance of the partnership,” said Major Kenneth Swartzell, who’s been the director of the state partnership program for the Pennsylvania National Guard for the last three years. “But we believe that more than just a partnership, it’s a friendship that takes mutual respect. If you don’t understand one another, it’s not going to work.”

“I have gotten to know some of my peers from Lithuania,” he continued. “I will be in the Pennsylvania National Guard forever and I fully expect to be engaged with people from Lithuania for the rest of my career. In order to develop friendships, you’ve got to make concerted efforts to understand, or it’s very superficial.”

From Sept. 6 to 17, the Pennsylvania National Guard hosted about 33 military personnel from Lithuania at its training headquarters at Fort Indiantown Gap in northern Lebanon County. During the exercises, members of the Lithuanian Land Forces reserve received instruction focusing on firefighting and medical training, among other disciplines.

But the Lithuanian military personnel were also provided a glimpse into American culture through area sightseeing excursions off base.

At the same time, on the other side of the world, around 40 members of Pennsylvania guardsmen were undertaking similar training exercises in Lithuania.

“It’s a United States initiative that allows us to address national defense issues around the globe,” said Swartzell. “It focuses on security, strategy and deterrents. This keeps our forces in the proper readiness cycles. The goal is to build interoperability. It helps us to be in a better global position. The partnership is not only important on a national and state level, but also on a global level. We build readiness. This is strategic.”

“During this particular exchange, we integrated their personnel into our everyday operations,” he added. “It’s a highly operational training environment. When I go there (Lithuania), I make sure I understand their history and culture. The rest of the time is pretty much training. But it’s never enough time.”

“They (the Lithuanians) were here for different types of military training,” said Brad Rhen, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania National Guard. “But they also did some sightseeing. They’re not locked down. We’re trying to be good partners. In addition to the training, we want them to learn about our country and we want to learn about their country. When you’re performing several weeks of work, you also want to give them some down time.”

In the 28 years since the state partnership program was established, the Pennsylvania National Guard and Lithuania have engaged in more than 750 exchanges. Personally, Swartzell’s position requires that he spends one to two weeks a month overseas helping to manage strategic partnerships like the one with Lithuania.

Military personnel from Lithuania and the Pennsylvania National Guard engage in training exercises at Fort Indiantown Gap. (Photo courtesy the Pennsylvania National Guard)

“It’s a beautiful country,” he said. “The culture is amazing and it’s rich in history. They’re very much a proud people. In America, we talk about freedom, but they truly understand it. When they say they’re going to fight for freedom, many have already lived it.”

“There are a lot of historic places there,” he added. “But their history is very short compared to the Baltic states and Europe. It’s an honor to go there. Lithuania is very much a beacon for democratic principles.”

Pennsylvania’s relationship with Lithuania began in 1993, as one of the first three partnership programs established by the U.S. matching a foreign country with a state’s national guard. Since then, the U.S. has established about 85 similar national guard partnerships with countries around the world.

A complex algorithm helped determine that Pennsylvania and Lithuania would be a good match on a few levels.

“It’s a national agreement involving the state department, the department of the defense and the national guard,” said Swartzell, a 38-year-old native of Reedsville. “Pennsylvania and Lithuania have similar populations, and there were also cultural considerations and geographic considerations. It’s a detailed analysis. It’s not a flip-a-coin kind of thing.”

“We have similar military capabilities. The not-so-obvious factor is that Pennsylvania has one of the largest Lithuanian populations in the country. It’s similar geographically. Our terrain is not much different than Lithuania’s.”

“Each state’s national guard has a partnership with a country,” said Rhen. “The idea in establishing these partnerships was to increase the goodwill between the countries. We’re working with allies around the world to build stronger relationships. The partnership has been very beneficial to the Pennsylvania National Guard and Lithuania. We send people over there and they send people over here. We learn how they do things, and they learn how we do things. It has many benefits.”

Three years before the start of the partnership program, Lithuania had redeclared its independence from the Soviet Union. Lithuania’s geographic location in Europe and near Russia make it strategically attractive to the United States.

“Once Lithuania’s independence was restored, they joined alliances like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the EU (European Union),” Swartzell explained. “They fought for their freedom, and they’ve worked to preserve it. Our relationship with Lithuania is one of the states’ strongest partnerships. We’ve accomplished a lot over the last 28 years, but we’ve also transitioned into more strategic initiatives.

“This is not just some military job you do for a couple of years and move on,” he concluded. “It changes your outlook. At some point, I’d like to take my family to Lithuania and show them their beautiful country.”

A Lithuanian soldier sits in a Black Hawk helicopter during training exercises with the Pennsylvania National Guard at Fort Indiantown Gap. (Photo courtesy the Pennsylvania National Guard)

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