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Minnesota National Guard treks to Norway to train in longstanding troop exchange

Minnesota, Norway prepare for troop exchange 02:41

This week, only on WCCO, reporter Reg Chapman and photojournalist Tom Aviles are tagging along as Minnesota National Guard Troops train in Norway.

Our citizen soldiers made the flight to Norway on Friday. They first arrived in the city of Trondheim -- from there they got onto buses to start their trek to the mountains. That's where they'll make camp and join Norwegian troops in some winter warfare training. They'll learn how to start fires, survive an avalanche, build tents.

It's part of an exchange program between Minnesota and Norway that has been happening for the past 50 years.

Stay tuned this week as we continue to present stories from the Land of the Midnight Sun.


Minnesota National Guard troops build ice walls, snow caves to endure heavy winds in Norwegian mountains

Due to a wind event overnight Thursday, troops spent hours building up an ice wall around their tents for protection. Maj. Katie Lunning is the officer in charge of this year's NOREX exchange.

"We use our shovels and just make a brick and build it up. If the wind isn't as high, you can have the wall about two-thirds height they said around the tent. But with the winds last night and the way that they're coming in today, we built the walls up to almost the same height as the tent," Lunning said. "The goal of the snow wall is to make sure it's a windbreak to keep the canvas dry and to keep the wind blowing off you as much as possible."

Lunning braved the storm right beside the troops she commands. 

"I definitely woke up and I could feel the tent swaying back and forth, but the Norwegians know what they're doing, so we have a stove going, we have really great wool gear to keep us warm, so even though you could hear it howling outside, we were comfortable."

The wind shook everything, and brought sub-zero temperatures. Troops relied on the shelter of their tents for protection. Cpt. Ellen McNair says Norwegian Home Guard troops stressed the importance of safety when it come to using this stove.  

Minnesota National Guard troops build ice walls, snow caves to endure heavy winds in Norwegian mount 03:11

"You start the stove as soon as you get in the tent because that's the source of your heat," McNair said. "You turn this heat gauge up all the way, it's got five levels up all the way to 5. You do a couple pumps of the fuel. The fuel is outside of the tent for safety purposes."

Once the fire is inside the stove, it heats up fast. With eight people in the tent, they take turns on fire watch. That means one person stands guard to put out the fire if it gets out of control. They also carry a knife to cut the sides open and get people out if needed to escape a burning tent.

While some stay close to the protection of the tents, others head further up the mountain. Troops dig snow caves that will provide shelter from snow, rain or sleet. It's another layer of protection from an unpredictable storm. They will hunker down inside until the weather allows them to move around. The snow cave is the perfect size to enjoy rations and a bit of down time with comrades.

This was one of the last looks these troops will get at the beauty and the danger a Norwegian winter brings. The time has come to descend the mountain and return to garrison. They overcame their fears and successfully completed training – thanks to the Norwegian Home Guard's expertise at conquering the elements.

By Reg Chapman

Scaling cold, windy mountains in Norway offers welcome challenge for Minnesota soldiers

More lifesaving training for Minnesota National Guard troops has taken them to the top of a mountain in Norway. An approaching winter storm has them moving quickly to their next camp, where they will take on the challenge of self-rescue when falling into open water.

Another night in the field leads to another day of training for Minnesota National Guard troops. This day holds lots of unknowns. Can they hold their own against an approaching storm and how will it impact their three-mile hike up the mountain on skis?

"I'm thinking about bracing my core stretching my shoulders breathing making sure our wing men are good and then staying dry," soldier Mindy Pitzner said.

Their load is a lot heavier this time -- equipment plus pine and birch tree parts to help start a fire and to use for bedding. Staying warm and dry are priorities. 

"Right now I've got the least amount of layers on. I'm a little chilly now but I know I'm going to be sweating pretty quickly, especially since were pretty much going straight up for the first half mile," Pitzner said.

The trek is serious business. Many of these troops are not expert skiers. The Norwegian Home Guard is on hand to make sure they are ready for this challenge.

The command is given and they head up the mountain. The scenery is breathtaking. Many troops seize the moment and take it all in.

"You get use to it. It breaks out a nice sweat in you," soldier Marshall Talley said.

Others, especially those who are pulling a load behind them, have a rough go of it. Hayden Nelson from Roseville trekked up the mountain with all the gear for the tent, along with pine branches for the floor of the tent. He said he's skied a few times at home, but it was "nothing like this."

Skiing with Minnesota Nat’l Guard troops in Norway 01:25

Up and then down, but never down for too long. They may share a laugh but help each other out. As a team they know they can overcome anything.

Part one of this day complete, they've reached the top only to face the next challenge, cold water survival training. The Minnesota troops have been out in the field for three days, and without any traditional option to shower or bathe.

Cleanliness is important but not as important as saving yourself if you fall into cold, open water. For Kelby Olson, this challenge puts her one step closer to her roots.

"We actually have family that moved to America from Sigdahl, Norway," Olson said. "I'm so lucky that I have this experience to be with everyone that is here from Minnesota."

For Nate Lillistol this trip is a dream come true, coming to the land his grandfather told him stories about.

"Just knowing that my family comes from here, it means a lot getting to come here. So its pretty cool," said Lillistol, whose name means "little chair" in Norwegian.

From escaping the cold water to the warming tent and a change of clothes, there's no time to rest for these troops. They have to build ice walls to protect their camp for the night. The battle against the approaching storm begins.

Minnesota National Guard troops were able to get those ice walls built before high winds slammed their camp. On Thursday, Reg Chapman and photojournalist Tom Aviles will share more from the mountaintop.

By Reg Chapman

Navigating a co-op in Norway

Reg Chapman, Tom Aviles navigate a Norwegian co-op 01:49

Reg Chapman and photographer Tom Aviles are in Norway with the Minnesota National Guard troops who are learning how to survive in extreme conditions. But they also took a stop at the local co-op.

By Reg Chapman

Minnesota National Guard troops in Norway learn how to survive extreme winter conditions

The Minnesota National Guard is learning how to survive in extreme conditions.

WCCO is with the troops as they learn survival skills from exchange partners in the Norwegian Home Guard.

Reg Chapman and photojournalist Tom Aviles show us what they learned in the snow-covered mountains near Haldsted, Norway.

Before darkness handed the day to light, Minnesota troops were up and ready for the day's mission. Slipping on white camouflage and snapping into their skis, they prepare for a round robin of training, where they will learn skills that can save their lives.

Surrounded by mountains, they quickly learn what's nice to look at could cause serious harm if there is an avalanche. Having the skills to survive is the purpose behind this training.

"We've gone through with finding with a rod, where you'll poke down through the snow and find somebody below you," said Master Sgt. Dan Kennedy. "In order to get to that point, we use beacons [to] help us hone in on where our folks are at."

Minnesota National Guard learning how to survive extreme conditions 03:40

There is more than one technique to use when trying to survive an avalanche.

"Final step of that is digging down so we make a V formation. Everybody's got shovels and just start digging until we find what we're looking for," he said.

Another platoon is out looking for the right materials to build a fire for warmth and to cook food. The key is finding a good branch to start that fire.

"You have to get them close to the trees, so when they're dead on the inside they lose the sun and then they dry out," said Soldier Tom Hoffman.

You also have to search for the right spruce tree where you smooth out the ground underneath to start your fire. But first you need a base.

"Birch is good for the base, so you want the base to be thicker and wetter, so as the fire burns it works its way down," Hoffman said. "And then spruce we'll build on top of the fire."  

CBSThese troops know that when they're cutting down trees to build a fire for warmth or for food, you have to cut it down from as close to the bottom as you can get. The last thing they want to do is leave a stump in this deep of snow that can cause a hazard for the next troop who's passing through.

If done right, not only will this fire keep you warm, it will cook all the food you trap or shoot. The fire also provides a good place to share what's cooking, and toast to good health.

While each platoon takes its turn learning these life-saving skills, the moment is not lost on Master Sgt. Kennedy.

"This is my first time on the NOREX exchange," Kennedy said.

He takes it all in, knowing his grandfather played a role in creating this partnership. 

"My grandfather was adjutant general when I was born Gen. Sieben," he said. "In the 1970s he was involved in the advent of this program and forming the partnerships with Norway."

His grandfather was also inducted to the Norwegian Royal Order of St. Olaf for his efforts in making the idea of an exchange reality.

"It's very special to me, especially after a couple of years of kind of feeling like I was let down a little bit, didn't get to go, feeling like Grandpa's looking out for me a little bit," he said. "It's a big deal to be here after 50 years of this partnership with another country."

So onward and upward as troops begin to prepare to head up the mountain, to Base Camp 2 for more training on to survive and thrive in harsh winter conditions. 

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz will head to Norway next week, where he will meet with Norway's Queen Sonja to officially recognize this partnership that began with a handshake in 1973.

By Reg Chapman

Norwegian soldiers share reindeer broth with Minnesota troops

Norwegian soldiers share reindeer broth with Minnesota troops 01:39

The Norwegian Home Guard is teaching Minnesotans not only to survive in tough wintery conditions, but to thrive.

Soldiers made reindeer broth - made with just reindeer meat, water, and salt that was cooked all night. 

Norwegian Home Guard troops say they want to get all of the energy from the reindeer, so they cook the meat, and don't grill it. That way, they get all the benefits from the meat.

By Reg Chapman

High-speed sledding lessons

Minnesota National Guard treks to Norway to train, includes high-speed sledding 02:08

The Norwegian Home Guard is teaching several life-saving skills. But they're also making sure to mix in some fun along the way.

WCCO's Reg Chapman and Photojournalist Tom Aviles got a lesson in some high-speed sledding.

By Reg Chapman

First impressions of Trondheim

Minnesota National Guard troops are in Norway for what is being called an historic exchange.

This is the 50th time the state of Minnesota and Norway have exchanged troops, but this year it's special.

This year, the United States Department of Defense made the troop exchange an official part of the state program, making it the longest running exchange program in DOD history.

While Norwegian military officials tie up loose ends, WCCO Reg Chapman and photojournalist Tom Aviles hit the streets of Trondheim.

Walking along its lighted streets, you notice the beauty of the city, and how friendly people are – always willing to answer a question or direct you to important sites you have to see while visiting.

First stop, the old town bridge, which was built in the 1600s and rebuilt in the 1800s. It is the main link to the heart of the city. Every way you turn, postcard picture perfect views.   

WCCO arrives in Norway ahead of Minnesota military exchange 02:57

At St. Olaf Church, Viking lore was exchanged for the Christian faith. In 1164, it received pontifical recognition, and Olaf's grave became a popular destination for European pilgrims.

From past history to present, Minnesota troops are ready for this historic exchange between them and the Norwegian Home Guard. 

Classroom instruction is done, and now Minnesota troops are ready to leave for the field, where they will ski to base camp.

All familiar with cold climate, Minnesota troop ditched their military cold weather gear for some of the best gear Norway has to offer.

Staying warm, surviving and thriving is the goal here. They'll load their new gear, including skis, to travel some two hours to base camp where all the exchanging of ideas, techniques and experiences begins.

By Reg Chapman

Inside the history of the Minnesota Red Bulls

Inside the history of the Minnesota Red Bulls 02:28

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota National Guard is the most deployed guard in the country.

The 34th Infantry division, a unit of the Minnesota National Guard started back in 1917 after border raids by Pancho Villa. Members from Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas were activated to guard the border with Mexico. Then, they trained in New Mexico.

That is where they adopted their symbol: the skull of a bull inside a Mexican water jar.

In World War II, the Germans came to know this symbol stood for ferocious fighting - that's when they got the name the "Red Bulls" and were immortalized in films of the time.

The Red Bulls were the first Americans to fire on the Germans in World War II. They also served in combat more days than any other unit. 

The Minnesota National Guard has maintained a high standard over the years. 

Working alongside enlisted troops and reserves, no one can question the strong committment of these citizen soliders and airmen.

Over the years WCCO has been there to share their stories.

Click here to read the full story.

By Reg Chapman

The growing partnership between the citizen soldiers of Minnesota and Norway

Minnesota, Norway prepare for troop exchange 02:41

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota and Norway are bound together by shared heritage and climate. 

We also share a legacy of hosting the longest-running troop exchange in the history of the United States Department of Defense.

Last fall, Norwegian troops were in Minnesota at Camp Ripley to train with the Minnesota National Guard.

"The most important part is bonding with Minnesota National Guard, get new acquaintances, new friends, and a way to see how Minnesota National Guard does their training compared to ours," said Maj. Kim Horgoien with the Norway Home Guard.

Norwegian Home Guard members learned everything from field medical training, to individual soldier skills, like weapons qualifications and land navigation. Soon, it will be our turn to go to Norway.

Click here to see the full story.

Next week, WCCO will travel with Minnesota troops as they head to Norway for training. Look for special reports from Reg Chapman and Photojournalist Tom Aviles on WCCO and CBS News Minnesota.

By Reg Chapman
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