Armenia visit a learning experience for Kansas visitors and hosts

Armenia visit a learning experience for Kansas visitors and hosts
By Stephen D. Larson
Plains Guardian (July)

When Maj. Gen. (KS) Tod Bunting, Kansas adjutant general, visited Armenia in
May 2004 with members of the Kansas National Guard, one of the first things
that impressed him was an unusual mixture of ancient and recent history.

“The thing that comes to mind when I think of Armenia is that they’ve been a
country for over 3,000 years,” said Bunting, “but they’ve only been free for
13 of the last 100 some years.”

Armenia has been a nation since the Kingdom of Urartu in the 9th century
B.C., but after enduring centuries of conquerors – Persians, Romans, Arabs,
Mongols, Turks, Communists – it did not regain its independence until the
collapse of the Soviet Union.

“We’re actually a fledgling country by world standards,” said Bunting, “but
in terms of total years living free, we’re senior in that department.”

It is that heritage of freedom that the Kansas National Guard hopes to share
with Armenia through the State Partnership Program. Through this program,
developing nations are paired with one of the States to foster military-to
military, military-to-civilian and civilian-to-civilian relationships.
Kansas became partners with Armenia in 2003. Accompanying Bunting on the
trip were Col. Joe Wheeler, Kansas Army National Guard Plans, Operations and
Training (DPOT) officer; Lt. Col. Charles Brown, training administrator,
DPOT, Lt. Col. Joe Knowles, Kansas coordinator of the State Partnership
Program; and Command Sgt. Maj. Dale Putman, Joint Forces Headquarters Kansas
– Land Component sergeant major.

“This was a military to military exchange,” said Knowles. “This was a chance
for us to go meet their senior military officers, develop a relationship and
determine what we can do for each other, what their needs were.”

“We had individual meetings with their minister of defense, their military
officers, emergency management and their medical personnel,” Knowles said.

“We discussed a variety of possibilities,” said Wheeler. “They wanted to do
exchanges on emergency management. We talked about leadership development,
visits by Armenian military leaders, civic leader exchanges, small unit
exchanges, social support exchanges, such as military medicine and hospital

The Kansas Guardsmen wanted to dispel any ideas that the Kansas National
Guard was going to be the “teacher” in this partnership.

“We fully expect to learn a lot from them,” said Bunting. “Their soldiers
are well-trained. They’re not a very big country, they’re surrounded by
countries that they don’t get along with so military training and readiness
is important to them.”

While Wheeler said that the Kansas National Guard will be learning from the
Armenians, he added that the Armenians expressed a great deal of interest in
the way the U.S. military works, too, particularly the National Guard system
and non-commissioned officers (NCO).

Because the Armenians do not have a national guard, the concepts of
“Citizen-Soldier” and civilian control of the military were particularly
fascinating to the Armenians.

“They really wanted to know about two things,” said Wheeler, “how the
National Guard operates and about the NCO corps. The whole concept of
National Guard and ready reserves is strange to them.”

“Like most of the former Soviet nations, they never have worked around an
NCO corps. It’s basically conscripts and officers,” said Bunting. “They
don’t have a national guard, so they don’t gain the benefit of keeping those
(experienced) soldiers around for a contingency in any kind of capacity.”

As a noncommissioned officer and a traditional Guardsman who works as a
utility lineman for Westar Energy during the week, Putnam found himself the
object of particular interest.

“They don’t have NCOs like we know them,” said Putman. The Armenians asked
him about his responsibilities and Putman explained to them how officers do
the planning and NCOs see that the work gets done.

“What we use NCOs for, they use their young lieutenants and officers,” said

“We got to visit their training academy,” Putman continued. “I got a chance
to go talk with some of their soldiers and they were impressed that an NCO
would come over to talk to them.”

“Even more than their military, the Armenian public was just fascinated by
this notion,” said Bunting. “We had a press conference in Armenia and made a
particular effort to introduce him (Putman) with a longer introduction
because they could not conceive how he could be a Soldier and a utility
worker for the power company.”

“The kept asking me ‘When did you have to choose between being a Soldier and
a utility worker’,” Putnam said. “It took them a while to understand that I
didn’t have to choose, that I could be both.”

“They asked me how I got paid,” he continued. “I explained that the military
paid me and Westar also paid me. When they found out I got a retirement from
the military, that really astounded them.”

In Armenia, every man must serve in the military for a minimum of three
years, after which they can become an officer, the only way to make a career
of the military in Armenia. Putman’s long service record of nearly 40 years
– he entered the Kansas Army National Guard in August 1964 – amazed and
puzzled them.

“Another question they kept asking him was ‘You’ve been in 39 years. How
come you haven’t been made an officer?'” said Bunting. “They couldn’t
understand that he didn’t want to be an officer nor did he have to be an
officer to have major responsibilities.”

The trip, which took place during the Memorial Day week, brought home
another interesting concept for the Armenians.

“They were very intrigued with Memorial Day,” Bunting said. “They believe
very strongly in their armed forces and yet they do not have a day when they
celebrate their armed forces and especially those who made the ultimate

Although this initial trip was a military-to-military meeting, the
delegation still had time to meet some of the Armenian public and see a
little of the country. They unanimously found the Armenians to be a very
gracious, hospitable and proud people.

“Armenians are very proud that they were the first country to adopt
Christianity,” said Bunting. “That’s going to come up in the first four
sentences you have with an Armenian.”

“They took us to a church way back in a remote region carved out of a
mountain,” he continued. “It was centuries old.”

“They liked to point out that they were older than the Vatican,” said

Coupled with that sense of historic pride is a sense of standing alone,
Bunting noted.

“They’re surrounded by Muslim nations,” said Bunting, adding that throughout
its history, the Armenians have viewed themselves as the frontier outpost of

Another somewhat unusual point of pride for the Armenians is a former Kansas
Senator and presidential candidate.

“Another person they are proud of is Bob Dole,” said Putman. “When Bob Dole
was injured during World War II, it was an Armenian doctor that treated

The land itself was also a delight for the visitors.

“I thought it was a beautiful country,” said Wheeler. “It has a lot of
mountains, waterfalls, canyons, a very volcanic area with lots of rocks.”

The group had the good fortune to be in the country during a national
holiday, which gave them the opportunity to sample a lot of the local

“All the people from each local farming community had a table with whatever
they grew,” said Putman. “There must have been 30 or 40 tables from
different farm communities passing out free samples. There was lamb and
sheep, fish, geese and duck. Not much beef. The fruits and vegetables were
really outstanding. They’re also very proud of their wines and beverages.”

“They even had a bread that they rolled out from wheat or rye,” said Putman.
“It was sort of like a soft shell taco and you put meat or whatever inside.
There was one table that had a honeycomb. They’d just cut out a hunk of
honey, comb and all, and give it to you that way.”

Although this was Bunting’s first trip to Armenia, he said it certainly
wouldn’t be the last for himself or the Kansas National Guard.

“People need to understand that this is a long-term relationship,” said
Bunting. “We hope that everyone in the Kansas Guard will have the occasion
to at least meet them as they visit and work along side them.”

As one step toward that goal, a small contingent of Armenian military
officers were at Fort Riley in July, observing the Kansas Army National
Guard’s 137th Transportation Company.

“They’re learning about our transportation techniques and tactics,”
explained Wheeler. “They don’t have anything like the PLS (Palletized
Loading System).”

Another group of Armenians will make a trip to Kansas in August, visiting
U.S. Army and Kansas Guard facilities and sampling some Kansas hospitality.

As movie legend Humphrey Bogart said at the end of the classic film
“Casablanca”: “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful

Caption: Maj. Gen. (KS) Tod Bunting, the adjutant general (right), displays
the Kansas flag with Maj. Artak Tonoyan, commander of the Armenian
Peacekeeping Battalion. Bunting presented the flag to Tonoyan during a visit
to Armenia in May. (Photo by Col. Joe Wheeler)

Caption: The Kansas delegation had the opportunity to visit an Armenian
troop training facility, where Command Sgt. Maj. Dale Putman’s status as a
traditional Citizen-Soldier made him an instant celebrity among the Armenian
troops, who have no NCO corps. (Photo by Col. Joe Wheeler)

Caption: Maj. Gen. (KS) Tod Bunting listens as an Armenian monk relates the
long history of Christianity in Armenia. Armenia is credited with becoming
the first country to become a Christian nation, converting in 303 A.D.
(Photo by Lt. Col. Joe Wheeler)