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Michigan Honors 20 Years With Latvia

Guard Soldiers celebrate a relationship that launched the State Partnership Program
SGT Robert Gustafson, Michigan National Guard, and a Latvian Soldier train with an Mk 19 grenade launcher in Latvia on April 14, 2009. Photo from Michigan National Guard
SGT Robert Gustafson, Michigan National Guard, and a Latvian Soldier train with an Mk 19 grenade launcher in Latvia on April 14, 2009. Photo from Michigan National Guard

LANSING, MI Dace Mason’s family left the Baltic seaside country of Latvia in the late 1940s with the hope the family would one day return to its homeland.

Mason was born while the family was living in a “displaced person’s camp” in Germany, before her parents immigrated to the U.S. Her parents had lived in a “free” Latvia from 1918, when Latvia gained its independence from Russia, until 1940 when Latvia was declared a Soviet republic. Between 1940 and 1945, a type of double occupation happened in Latvia as the Nazi and Soviet regimes replaced one another.

The Mason family immigrated to the United States to raise the family in a democratic society. The Masons maintained their independent spirit and had the goal to return to Latvia. When the Soviet Union’s stronghold of nations crumbled in 1991, Latvia won its independence again, but the family never did return to its homeland.

Mason is now the administrative assistant to Michigan National Guard Army Major General Gregory Vadnais, the adjutant general and director of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. In 1992, she was serving as Air National Guard Major General E. Gordon Stump’s assistant when the chief of the National Guard Bureau invited Michigan to participate in an exciting and extremely challenging U.S. State Department and Department of Defense program.

The vision was to aid in the development of the republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—all formerly occupied by the Soviet Union. This was something the National Guard had never done before.

Given the choice of a country to work with, the choice was simple for Stump. “I chose Latvia because one of my best friends and my assistant were Latvians,” he says. “Before that, I only knew Latvia from my friends’ stories.”

Strong Ties

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the relationship established between Michigan and Latvia in the State Partnership Program (SPP). On June 30, 1993, less than 90 days after establishing the partnership with Latvia, a seven-person team of Michigan Army and Air National Guard members arrived in Latvia to begin the first of many military-to-military engagements in support of defense security goals.

The team was also the first to cross the ocean to build a relationship as members of the National Guard’s SPP. One initial objective was to help Latvia make the transition to a citizen-based military, and building relationships with the Latvians was integral to this goal.

The Michigan Guard offered management expertise and lessons learned in a form of the Total Quality Management principles taught in various civilian and U.S. military organizations at the time.

Many joint Michigan-Latvian military-to-military engagements have followed since that first mission. Beginning in 1994, joint military exercises have been held in Europe and the U.S. In 1996, Michigan Guard Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry, based in Big Rapids, MI, deployed to Latvia to participate in Baltic Challenge ’96, the first exercise of its kind held on Baltic soil.

In 1999, Michigan hosted the first multinational exercise, dubbed “Partner Challenge” by the three participating Baltic nations—Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—and their respective partner states of Michigan, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The objective was to integrate and standardize the three Baltic military forces with those of NATO countries.

Other multinational exercises such as Saber Strike, held in Estonia and, most recently, Operation Northern Strike in Michigan have provided the Michigan and Latvian National Guard opportunities to sharpen defense security goals. The ongoing partnership and related exercises were all factors that assisted in Latvia’s accession to NATO in 2004.

As the SPP team began to pursue opportunities to deploy in support of a peacekeeping mission, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) leadership was asking for more countries to participate in missions to Afghanistan.

In 2007, Latvia proposed the development of a joint unit with the Michigan National Guard in support of the ISAF. After initial discussion between Latvian Armed Forces and Michigan senior military leaders, the proposal made its way to the National Guard Bureau, where the proposal was endorsed. The joint Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) was established in January 2008.

To enhance the Latvians’ capabilities in directing close air support and indirect fire, it was proposed they develop Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) capabilities to ensure the OMLT had the needed technical and communication expertise. Heavy emphasis was put on the JTAC program. The engagement was judged successful, with the Latvian program receiving full certification in 2010.

Between November 2008 and December 2010, Michigan and Latvian National Guard members became the first in the SPP to deploy as an operational and mentoring team. The team served three nine-month tours as an OMLT in the mountains of Afghanistan. Sadly, two Latvian Soldiers, Sergeant Voldemars Ansevics and Corporal Andrejs Merkuservs, were killed during a battle in 2009.

The Latvian Soldiers’ framed pictures are included in the “Hall of Heroes” at the Joint Force Headquarters in Lansing, alongside the 21 Michigan Army Guard Soldiers who have died in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

Although Dace Mason’s parents never returned to their native country, she has traveled as an interpreter with the Michigan Guard and has seen firsthand the Latvians’ receptivity to working with the Michigan military.

This fiscal year, more than 24 events will occur between the two partners that range from JTAC training trips to the Grayling Air Gunnery Range in Michigan to exercise planning in Latvia to a number of cyber defense events conducted across the Baltics. Vadnais has invited the Latvians to provide support in the development of Liberia, Michigan’s newest SPP partner. To date, the Latvians have supported three contact teams to Liberia that focused on professional development and cyber defense.

The Michigan-Latvian partnership, which began two decades ago, has chalked up an impressive record of firsts, with an untold number of milestones ahead. Michigan and Latvia will work together in a security engagement initiative using all the lessons learned during their 20 years of cooperation as they start a new chapter in their partnership.