By Mollie Rushmeyer, Correspondent
Crisp mountain air, the crunch of the freshly fallen snow beneath her skis and the weight of the 30-pound pack on her shoulders, surrounded by her fellow servicemen as they strain onward and upward, pushing themselves to the edge of what they thought themselves capable.
That’s just what Jordan Preiss, a senior airman in the Air National Guard and native of Fort Ripley, faced in February during her outdoor survival training in Norway.
As Airman of the Year and growing up an avid outdoorsman, Preiss is well-suited for the training program meant to prepare and train her for extreme conditions.
“I love being outside — kayaking, fishing, snowboarding, skiing, hiking, anything outside,” Preiss said. “That’s what pushed me to go. I enjoy winter and every season.”
However, even a great fitness test score and her love of hiking and winter sports, she said, could never have truly prepared her for the rigorous tasks she faced in the Norwegian mountains.
“I don’t think I was prepared for how much work it was going to be,” Preiss said. “I was pretty much tired all the time, but I was having so much fun, I didn’t notice.”
The trip to Norway is a part of a special training program in cooperation with the Norwegian Home Guard. Preiss, along with other Air National Guardsmen as well as Army National Guard applied for the program which takes place one time per year.
“This is a once in a lifetime thing,” Preiss said. “It’s pretty special if you get picked to go.”
Applicants are picked based on merit and his/her volunteer hours, and 20 to 30 participants are from the Air Force, the rest of the 103 total are from the Army National Guard.
According to the Minn. National Guard website, each year since 1974, when Major General Herluf Nygaard of the Norwegian Home Guard and the Chief of the National Guard, Major General Francis S. Greenlief, agreed to begin an exchange program. The two nations have had a partnership called Norway Reciprocal Troop Exchange or NOREX. One in which Norway sends youths from the Home Guard in Norway to the Midwest, in particular, Camp Ripley, where there are Scandinavian ties. The National Guard in turn sends soldiers to Norway to bring unity between the two countries, learn about one another’s cultures, and go through a different set of training activities than what they’re used to.
NOREX is now the longest running exchange program of its kind, with more than 9,700 participants after its 44th year.
One of the main purposes of the trip is to put the soldiers in an extreme environment and teach them skills to help them survive in the harsh conditions, something Preiss experienced firsthand.
After flying into Trondheim, Norway, they went to the Norwegian military base, Camp Værnes. There, they had a short time to acclimate to the time change, and then the group began three days of training and informational sessions.
Before being sent into the wilderness, they learned how to use a kerosene heater to boil water and cook food, how to build an emergency tent, properly dress for the weather and how to ski—which Preiss, as a skier/snowboarder, already knew how to do. They also learned how to look for avalanches, build a snow cave for shelter, and address cold injuries, such as frost bite and hypothermia.
Then the real test came — using the knowledge they had gained on the Haltdalen area mountains.
“Each day we applied what we had learned,” Preiss said. “They kept us busy from early in the morning until late at night. There wasn’t even five minutes to sit and do nothing.”
They spent four days in the mountains building their own shelters, even making caves completely of snow and sleeping overnight in them, learning to trap and clean animals to eat, creating fires, and what to do during an avalanche.
Even though much of it was hard work, Preiss said they had a ton of fun too. The group had a great time bonding with the Norwegian servicemen while there, having a winter barbecue, bonfires, a ski-in movie theatre one night, as well as an “American night” and a “Viking night” to showcase each country’s food and culture.
For “American night”, Minnesotan brewed beer, Nordeast, was served along with, what else, tator tot hotdish, and Mancini’s, a restaurant in St. Paul, sent along steaks for everyone as well.
On “Viking night,” Preiss said her troop earned their Viking horns for different activities like stacking wood, spelling in Norwegian, and tests of strength. Then they enjoyed a popular Norwegian drink called Aquavit and ate reindeer, which she said was, “really good.”
Preiss also experienced something no one else on the trip did, reconnecting with a family friend who lives in Trondheim. When her aunt was in college, she had a roommate from Norway. The family stayed in touch over the years and graciously invited Preiss to visit during her free time while in Norway. And staying with a native family taught her more about the culture than any training or reading ever could.
“They’re very active, and take pride in that,” Preiss said. “They’re outside all day, even in the winter.”
The weekends are for hiking, picnicking, spending time with family, and they’re also extremely proud of their heritage and history.
Though the trip may have lasted less than two weeks, Preiss said the things she learned will last a lifetime.
“It was the first time leaving the country,” Preiss said. “I saw how others lived, how their economy worked. It was so beautiful skiing in the mountains. It was just such a great experience.”