SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador --
After two years of sporadic correspondence, it only took a few minutes of face time for N.H. Adjutant Gen. David Mikolaities and Salvadoran Defense Minister René Merino to reaffirm their commitment to the New Hampshire National Guard-El Salvador State Partnership Program.
“If you have the will, welcome,” said Merino, during a May 25 office call at the Ministry of National Defense.
The vice admiral last hosted Mikolaities in February 2020 when they cut through a thickly frosted "pastel" to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the partnership at Ilopango Air Force Base. That day, the U.S. ambassador praised the program’s longevity, a remarkable feat considering the region’s shifting politics and amount of turnover in both the Salvadoran and New Hampshire high commands.
Across the airfield, the NHNG’s 39th Army Band was playing to a raucous crowd of thousands gathered for Central America’s largest air show. That was just before COVID-19 forced both the Salvadoran military and NHNG to become the lynchpins of their government’s respective relief efforts. For the next 18 months, lockdowns and travel restrictions stunted a partnership that had been averaging 10 bilateral exchanges a year.
“It was great to be back,” said Mikolaities, who led a delegation of six NHNG personnel for the one-day engagement. “El Salvador is a key strategic partner in Latin America. It was really important to reset the relationship.”
The itinerary included embassy briefings from the U.S. Military Group and country team, and a civil disturbance demonstration by the Salvadoran army’s special security brigade. For four of the American travelers, the trip was their first exposure to the partnership.
“It was good to see the different parts of government coming together to support a partner nation,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Sawicki, commander of the 157th Maintenance Squadron.
“The State Department and the people working at the embassy all share a common goal and to see that for just a day was a great experience.”
The timing of the visit was especially significant for Capt. Mario Rey, who just took over as the NHNG SPP coordinator.
“The Mil Group is going through a changeover in key positions so it’s good for us to extend the continuity,” Rey said. “We’ve been here, our initiatives have been ongoing, and it’s an enduring partnership. They can relay that message to the incoming leadership, which makes for a seamless transition at least with our small piece. I think we achieved that.”
It helps that the NHNG has one of its own assigned to the embassy. Capt. Jeremy Saunders, a logistics officer from Rochester, works both as a member of the Military Group’s security cooperation team and a liaison for the state partnership.
“It’s been a great experience so far,” he said.
Six months into the job, Saunders wants to extend his two-year assignment for another year. He took a leave of absence from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and brought his family.
“To see how the U.S. works at an embassy, how they use different programs to extend U.S. influence in the region – just to be a part of that has been amazing,” Saunders said.
Under the direction of National Guard Bureau, the state partnership program began nearly 30 years ago as an initiative to assist countries emerging from behind the Iron Curtain.
SPP now involves one-third of the world’s countries and the National Guard of every U.S. state and territory. Some states have multiple partnerships. Earlier this year, Cabo Verde signed on to become the NHNG’s second, state partner country.
To those who might question the logic of pairing New Hampshire with a Central American republic and a West African island nation, where Spanish and Portuguese are the official languages, Rey has a simple answer.
“We have a lot in common, our organizational structures have a lot in common,” he said. “Soldiering is soldiering and being an airman is being an airman whether it’s here or there. A lot of our core competencies are interchangeable. We all learn from each other.”
The unique, civil-military nature of the NHNG has allowed for a wide range of exchanges with El Salvador involving not just the military, but also government, business, education and law enforcement. They are coordinated through the combatant command, U.S. ambassador’s country team, and other agencies as appropriate to ensure they meet both U.S. and country objectives.
Mikolaities likes to tout the whole-of-society approach whenever he speaks about the Guard’s international alliances. “In this new era of great power competition (a reference to the ongoing rivalry between the United States, China and Russia for global influence), it’s critical to be on the field,” he said.
By the close of their meeting, he and Merino had agreed to schedule a planning conference for later this summer with a goal of setting a glide path for the next five years of the partnership. Among Merino’s most pressing asks were continued help with developing El Salvador’s non-commissioned officer corps and cyber security.
“I can’t wait to see how the next 20 years unfold,” Mikolaities said.