By Jenn Rowell
Alabama and Romania are building a two-way street -- it's about 5,000 miles long.
An Alabama contingent recently returned from a weeklong visit to the former Communist Bloc nation, and four Romanian military doctors were in Alabama last week.
During the weeklong summer trip, the Alabama contingent visited Tulcea for the first time, a change from previous years when the contingent stayed in the capital area of Bucharest.
This time, Guardsmen and civilians didn't just exchange ideas. Guard members delivered supplies to an orphanage and participated in other humanitarian assistance.
Alabama medical personnel, military and civilian, administered 500 immunizations, 250 dental screenings, and 385 eye screenings. They distributed 2,000 toothbrushes along with toothpaste and dental floss and 2,000 bars of antibacterial soap donated mostly by U.S. Central Command.
Individuals and groups in the Montgomery area donated most of items they delivered to the orphanage. Several area groups are establishing programs to support the orphanage year-round.
Lt. Col. Judy Dailey of the Alabama Air National Guard, who visited the orphanage, was surprised when a simple gift not included with the main supplies caused an uproar.
"I walked in and had something in my hand and those kids, they just bombarded me," Dailey said. "And it was just construction paper. They were so excited. It just touched your heart."
The U.S. ambassador to Romania, Nicholas Taubman, recently identified the rural Tulcea region as a focal point for the partnership program.
He underscored that commitment by sending members of his staff to tour the region with the Alabama contingent, said Lt. Col. Dennis Butters, director of operations for military support for the Alabama National Guard.
But the visits aren't just humanitarian missions. The Guard handpicks subject matter experts to meet with their Romanian counterparts to exchange ideas and discuss things they have in common, Butters said.
Irene Collins, executive director of the state's Department of Senior Services, met with the woman responsible for senior services in the Tulcea region, and found that she was also responsible for programs for children, the mentally ill and disabled.
"How encouraging it is to see how they are working to improve the conditions of people they are trying to help," she said.
It was a work-oriented trip, but getting place to place sometimes took hours. Horse-drawn carts -- the main mode of transportation outside cities -- often slowed the group.
"It's not like traveling here in America by any means," Collins said. "You go into the city of Tulcea and that is a rather small little city ... but once you get outside of that and the main road, you're on dirt roads."
It's an experience Maj. Shannon Hancock didn't expect when she joined the Guard in 1989 -- the partnership program didn't exist then.
"When you think National Guard, you just think within your state," she said. "It opens a whole different world to you beyond our Alabama bubble."
Now she is the director of the program for the state and later this summer, she's moving to Romania to coordinate the program from that end.
While Alabama might be more modern and part of a superpower, Alabama participants said that doesn't mean there's nothing to learn from Romania.
"The exchange goes both ways," Hancock said.
Avian bird flu is one example. Romania has dealt with actual outbreaks, whereas Alabama simply runs preparation exercises, Hancock said. The Guard took public health officials on this trip to discuss how Romanian officials handled the event, from quarantines to road closures.
The distance between the two countries mean many cultural differences, but the Tulcea region is on the water and has many similarities to Alabama -- including mosquitoes.
"It's eerie how similar it is, even though it's two different countries," she said.
Recently, Hancock escorted four Romanian doctors through Alabama. They're at Fort Rucker learning about aeromedical evacuations and will be back in Montgomery this week. In September, a smaller Alabama contingent will travel to Romania.
Although many Alabama Guardsmen have served in war zones, others have never left the state. Guard officials said the partnership program increases international cooperation and understanding, but also increases opportunities.
"It opens up people's imagination more to what you can do with your life," Hancock said.