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Command Senior Enlisted Leader  /  In Formation  /  Commentary: Our time in the mountains

Commentary: Our time in the mountains

As I backed over the ledge, the jokes and smiles of my fellow class participants did little to assuage my fear of heights. It was my first time rappelling as it is not a part of my job description in the military. The diverse group of NCO’s from fourteen nations in the alliance had all come for the same reason: To spend a week improving leadership skills, developing networks and learning the basics of mountaineering.

The 10th NATO and PARTNERS NCO Winter Camp was held March 3 to 10 at Polljuka barracks, Slovenia. The intent of the camp was to bring together NCO’s from different member nations and career fields to bond through a shared experience in the mountains. As a saxophonist and the director of operations with the SHAPE International Band, mountain climbing, rappelling and biathlon are not a part of my usual day at the office.

For many of us this was our first attempt at biathlon, and by all measures it was not an Olympic performance.  The competition was held on the last day of the camp and while everyone showed up in good physical condition, this event truly let the athletes shine.  The two Austrians enjoyed a decided advantage as they were mountaineering experts, and this was just a week of light training for them (they finished first and second). For the rest of us it was a race to see who would come in third. That honour was given to our Belgian counterpart who had never cross-country skied before that week.  

We had the opportunity to meet with a number of CSELs (Command Senior Enlisted Leaders) and other senior enlisted leaders who shared their leadership experience. Being able to hear information straight from the source and getting a sense of what it takes to lead at that level was very enlightening.  The over-arching themes of the classroom sessions included inspiring us to take charge wherever we are, always do more than is expected, and motivate our peers.

The members of the team running the event were very helpful with taking us through the paces of a day in the life of a mountain soldier. The rappelling and mountain climbing excursion was where many of us were able to face our fears, and we bonded through a shared experience that will stay with us long past the week. There were of course professionals among the participants who have climbed and rappelled a number of times, and they were able to help the rest of us by offering support and the occasional hands-on encouragement.

The required equipment was something new for many of us as well.  We had to put skins on our skis that enabled us to walk up mountains, which seems like a really good idea until you’ve done it for a few hours and your legs are screaming at you to stop but you still have to make it back to the barracks. We were also shown the basics of avalanche search and rescue. It is interesting to note that one of the primary jobs of the Slovenian unit we were working with is helping civilians who have gotten lost or have injured themselves on the many ski trails around the area. The NATO Mountain Warfare Center of Excellence is a very impressive establishment. We were given a quick tour and treated to an introduction of what they are bringing to the joint fight.

The evenings were spent reliving the adventures of the day and getting to know each other in the nearby town of Bled. The restaurants and taverns were very welcoming even if we were a bit more boisterous than the usual clientele.

The biggest lesson learned from the week is no matter where we are from, no matter what we have seen, and no matter what language we are trying to speak that day, deep down we are all just people. Leading others and getting people to work towards a common, shared goal is a challenge we are all facing together.  

In the words of one of the participants, "It’s good to be scared every now and then. It lets you know you are on the right path.”

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