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Washington National Guard takes domestic response global during Cobra Gold 2023

Natural disasters don’t recognize international borders, which is why strong partnerships between responding nations are vital to emergency preparedness and community resilience.

With that in mind, members of the Washington National Guard and the Royal Thai Armed Forces took part in multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) training in Rayong Province, Thailand, from Feb. 24 to Mar. 3, 2023. The HADR was part of the 42nd iteration of exercise Cobra Gold, a Thai-U.S. co-sponsored exercise held annually in the Kingdom of Thailand.

The Washington National Guard and the Kingdom of Thailand have enjoyed a special relationship through the State Partnership Program (SPP), ensuring U.S. and Thai soldiers can join forces in every situation, ranging from humanitarian assistance to disaster relief. Since 2003, the two nations have engaged in subject matter expert exchanges, sharing skills and best practices for a variety of disasters.

“The scope and scale of our decontamination elements are different,” said Washington National Guard Warrant Officer Kristen Retherford, a decontamination advisor with the 10th Homeland Response Force (HRF), 96th Troop Command. “Their system is more of a first responder type system. We as a HRF are used to assisting in larger scale scenarios with more casualties, so it was a learning curve for us.”

The HADR began with a table top planning exercise (TTX) and panel discussion featuring speakers from non-military international organizations such as the Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, and the International Federation of the Red Cross. During the TTX, participants were broken up into groups to discuss different questions and then present them to one another at the end of the day.

“This year’s tabletop has the largest group of participants,” said Britton T. London, Sr., advisor and exercise planner for the CFE-DM. “It was exciting to see the eager participation by all nations who have a lot of experience responding to several types of disasters. The questions asked were designed to get the multinational teams to think of solutions together, and to share experiences to learn and grow.”

The practical demonstration was held at the Disaster Relief Training Center in Chachoengsao Province from Feb. 28 to March 3. Service members from participating nations conducted hands-on HADR operations, including search and rescue, emergency medical services, medical evacuation, hazardous materials decontamination, and firefighting.

“There was representation from every single country in each group,” said Retherford. “So we learned from each other, we discussed how maybe one country would do it this way, and another country would do it this way.”

This was the first year all participating nations were able to gather face-to-face since 2019. The last two years saw the highest levels of National Guard domestic deployments in history, but the Washington National Guard has maintained relationships built during previous years by conducting virtual tabletop exercises. This year’s HADR included participants from the Kingdom of Thailand, the U.S., Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Singapore, Japan, and the Republic of Korea as well as non-military international organizations.

“The scale of natural disasters tends to be increasing and involves more and more people,” Retherford continued. “We have to get used to helping each other and responding to this stuff so we all have a shared understanding of the system and how to work together no matter what language.”

Story by Staff Sgt. Adeline Witherspoon