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
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
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
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.”