Iowa National Guard provides year-round support to Kosovo Security Force

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PRISTINA, Kosovo (KCRG) - Tuesday was the Iowa National Guard member’s first day to meet Kosovars in the Kosovo Security Force. This trip is filled with about 30 Iowa soldiers who have never been to the country and don’t have a lot of knowledge of the people, so the day is filled with a chance to learn about the history, culture, and partnership.

Photo: Allison Wong/KCRG

During the morning session, Photographer Charlie Grant and I took the chance to meet up with a team of Americans who are doing some cyber-security work with the Kosovars. All week, members of the 168th Cyber Operations Squadron were working with members of the KSF cyber-security team. The Iowa National Guard has sent teams to do this work at least two times a year for at least seven years.

I spoke with a KSF Captain who said this is helpful as Kosovo is establishing itself as a country, and especially as the KSF is expanding. Recently, the KSF Parliament approved a mandate that allows the KSF to become an armed force able to protect its borders and begin peace-keeping missions outside of the country.

KSF Captain Albert Asllani said, “The KSF now has roles and responsibilities in terms of the country itself…so the new cyber unit in the KSF we need to be able to protect all critical assets and information the KSF uses daily.”

“We’re trying to use the experience from the 168th Cyber Operations Squadron and try and help to build up a better, a more solid foundation for the new KSF cyber unit,” Asllani added.

One thing I quickly noticed today is many of the Iowa Majors, Colonels and Generals personally know their Kosovar counterparts. People greeted each other like old friends, shaking hands and asking about each other’s families. For example, we saw Vegim Krelani, KSF Commander for the Center for University Studies, ask Iowa National Guard Colonel Michael Wunn about his child starting college. Then, Wunn asked about Krelani’s daughter. Krelani said, “Iowans think we are very good hosts, but I’ve been to Iowa and you guys are really good hosts as well.”

I learned a lot about Iowa’s efforts to increase Kosovo’s independence and to strengthen the KSF.

Major Kerri Lewers, who is nearing the end of a two year tour in Kosovo, said the Guard provides the KSF equipment. “The way the Iowa National Guard can support that is through maintaining that equipment so that the equipment lasts longer obviously can perform better and so that’s something Iowa is taking a vested interest in supporting the KSF,” Lewers explained.

Iowans should care about this partnership, says Lewers, because the Guard is helping to provide stability in this region of the world.

“The more they can provide security on their own, the less likely it is that major events are going to happen here in Kosovo,” she said. “So Iowa is a huge player in that, in supporting them through professional development and really encouraging them and helping them to increase their capability to provide their own security within the country.”

And Kosovars are appreciative. English Language teacher Blerim Sherifi said, “We benefit a lot in exchanging culture, learning from each other, making new friends.”

Tuesday ended on a high note with a soccer match, Kosovars vs Americans. This game has been the joke of the trip so far, as the Americans were ready for a miserable defeat. However, they only lost by 3 points. The final score was 5 to 2. Ashely Schmit says she was happy they could even do that.

“Record has last year no one scored any points against these guys, so we have two so far. So that’s kind of a big deal,” she said.

They all had a lot of fun, and Schmit was happy for the opportunity to get to know the Kosovars a bit more. Schmit said, “It’s kind of nice to get to know them and actually have conversations with them, and we’re talking a little bit out there on the field so it’s really nice.”

When I first committed to coming on this trip, I was told how much the Kosovars love America and in particular, Iowa. The hospitality and camaraderie I witnessed today was proof of that.