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Norwegian exchange program reunites family

In a room on Camp Ripley Thursday, March 31, Vetle Andersen, a member of the Home Guard Youth was reunited with his aunt, Jennie Halstensen, of St. Louis Park, after not seeing him since 2008.

Family members greet each other.
Rolf Halstensen, left, and Jennie Halstensen greet their relative Vetle Andersen from Norway, Thursday, March 31, 2022, at Camp Ripley.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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CAMP RIPLEY — After not seeing each other in 14 years, no one would have imagined that a simple handshake 49 years ago between a Camp Ripley National Guard soldier and a soldier in the Norwegian Home Guard would bring the family back together again.

In a room at Camp Ripley Thursday, March 31, Vetle Andersen, a member of the Home Guard Youth, was reunited with his aunt, Jennie Halstensen of St. Louis Park after not seeing her since 2010.

“You’ve grown so much,” Halstensen said as she embraced her nephew.

NOREX is an annual training exercise where soldiers from Norway’s Home Guard — their version of the United States’ National Guard — and the Home Guard Youth travel to Minnesota and learn from the Minnesota National Guard. At the same time, American National Guard members travel to Norway to learn how to survive in Norwegian nature.

The joint force made up of integrated squads of American and Norwegian soldiers spend around two weeks in each other's countries learning from one another.

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Halstensen brought some American candy to give to Andersen. “Black licorice, a favorite of Norwegian people,” she said. And some Reese’s as Andersen had never tried them before.

“Peanut butter is not something you see often (in Norway),” Andersen said.

After some pleasantries, Jennie Halstensen reminded Andersen of his grandfather’s 102nd birthday April 1 and they planned to make a video at dinner that night to send back home and wish him well.

Jennie Halstensen along with her brother, Rolf, also used the opportunity to catch up with Andersen on what has been happening in his life as they waited for her other brother, Arne, before taking Andersen out for dinner.

The Home Guard Youth is a voluntary organization for boys and girls, age 16 to 21 years old, with a focus on outdoor recreation and other physical and sporting activities with a military element.

During its first week in the States, the Home Guard Youth spent time learning about land navigation, first aid and target practice. Over the weekend, National Guard families will host the Norwegians before they start a week of cultural exchange.

With cultural exchange being an important part of NOREX, the Norwegians cooked a traditional Norwegian meal March 30 — with both a cold and hot buffet.

Bringing their own chefs from Norway, they prepared reindeer, halibut, lamb, king crab, lefse and salmon. The Norwegians jokingly went through the line together with the Americans, to make sure the smoked salmon and strawberry jam did not get mixed up.

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Members of the Home Guard Youth do not take part in any practical training or war-related activities. Participation is solely on a voluntary basis and takes place in the young person’s free time.

Halstensen’s father moved to the United States in 1948 and raised his family here. As it had been years since Halstensen visited Norway, she inquired about family and talked about some of her prior visits and how she was searched by airport security during one of those flights.

For Halstensen, nothing beats Norwegian chocolate.

Preparing to fly back to the States during one of her trips to Norway, Halstensen acquired a large amount of chocolate and wanted to bring it safely home. So she wrapped them together and placed them in the center of the suitcase.

“Going through security, they pulled me aside and asked what I was bringing home,” Halstensen said.

To the surprise of security, and a huge relief to Halstensen, there was only chocolate in her bag.

Still an adventure, but without the hassle, Andersen and Home Guard Capt. Borre Andreassen presented Halstensen with two bars of Norwegian chocolate and a Norwegian challenge coin at Camp Ripley.

TIM SPEIER, staff writer, can be reached on Twitter @timmy2thyme , call 218-855-5859 or email tim.speier@brainerddispatch.com .

Tim Speier joined the Brainerd Dispatch in October 2021, covering Public Safety.
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