KIEL, Germany (NNS) -- Multinational military exercises afford service members from participating nations an opportunity to see new places, forge new relationships and increase operational proficiency in a joint environment.
For Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe, participating in Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2019 meant much more.
BALTOPS 2019 is the premier annual maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic region, designed to enhance flexibility and interoperability among the 18 participating allied and partner nations.
Currently serving as production chief and lead aerial photographer at Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, located in San Diego, Calif., Renfroe’s arrival in Kiel, Germany, represented a long-awaited homecoming.
Renfroe, whose parents met in Berlin during the 1970s, spent the early part of her life in Germany.
Returning to the country as part of BALTOPS made her reflect on an enduring childhood memory which now holds a deeper significance.
“I distinctly remember as a child, looking through a crack in the Berlin Wall,” said Renfroe. “I remember seeing a green field and asking my mother, ‘What’s so different on the other side?’”
Renfroe’s parents connected in Berlin while her mother was studying graphic design and her father was stationed with the U.S. Army attached to the Berlin Brigade.
“My mother was born in Czechoslovakia and she left when she was sixteen,” said Renfroe. “Her mother moved her to an all-girls home in Berlin during the 1968 Soviet invasion.”
According to Renfroe, the pair began an unusual and unlikely relationship.
“She didn’t speak English, he didn’t speak German,” she said, “but they started courting each other, fell madly in love, got married and had twins. I have a twin brother.”
Renfroe said her introduction to the English language came through a distinctly German prism.
“German was my first language,” Renfroe recalled. “It wasn’t until kindergarten where the teachers were telling my parents ‘You know, your children really should learn English.’”
Renfroe said her father accepted orders to be stationed in Turkey, giving her an opportunity to spend her formative years experiencing an entirely new culture.
“In 1990 we moved to Izmir, Turkey,” she said, “We lived there from the time I was in third grade up until before my freshman year of high school. It was German, English, Turkish in that order,” she explained, becoming fluent in Turkish as well.
Renfroe was ecstatic to volunteer for BALTOPS because of its location and the opportunity it afforded her to interact with Turkish and German military forces.
“They say ‘home is where the heart is,’ and I associate Turkey with home, just because it was such a huge part of my childhood,” she said. “In fact, one of the first questions I asked (before being assigned to BALTOPS) was ‘Is Turkey involved?’”
Renfroe said she’s already experienced both commonality and camaraderie with her Turkish and German Navy counterparts.
“Today I bumped into three Turkish Sailors,” she said, “and as we were speaking, they were all surprised because I don’t look Turkish nor have an accent. It was nice being able to connect with complete strangers through language and the experience of both sharing Turkey as home.”
Renfroe joined the U.S. Navy as a photographer in March, 2001, something she admits she never could have imagined herself doing when she was younger.
“I didn’t know the Navy had a photography program,” she said. “I didn’t think there was room for creativity in the Navy or the service in general.”
Renfroe jokingly suggested she had to be gentle while breaking the news of her career decision to her father.
She said that when she told him her plans of joining the Navy, he was upset it wasn’t the Army.
U.S. Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup, public affairs officer at Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) in San Diego, said Renfroe’s experience, photographic acumen and technical expertise made her the perfect fit to provide BALTOPS documentation.
“It's something we didn't have available during previous mine warfare exercises at SMWDC,” Stroup said, in reference to naval aircrewman’s aerial photography. “She is the right person to have on our team to show how valued photographic expertise is to the mission."
Stroup added that Renfroe’s unique background also contributes to the mission.
“In our community, we're all about the value of relationships,” said Stroup. “She has a tremendous ability to empathize with others, which I suspect comes from having such multi-faceted life experiences."
Renfroe urged her fellow service members to take advantage of the cultural exchange and the opportunity to build relationships with sailors from other nations while also training together during BALTOPS 2019.
“I encourage my American counterparts to really experience the culture and stories of the international forces around us,” she said. “There are more commonalities than we think, and getting to know one another, in these curious ways, translates to stronger bonds, both operationally and culturally.”
Renfroe stated that she already finds her BALTOPS experience a rewarding one.
“It is really great being here, having the opportunity to connect with Turkish, German and all international Sailors.” she said. “It is a win-win. I appreciate being able to see that commonality, and sometimes it simply begins with a hello in their native language.”