ĀDAŽI, Latvia – U.S. and Latvian dignitaries, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, attended the unveiling of "Michigan Avenue," a main roadway at Ādaži Military Base, Latvia, on June 12. Latvian military officials chose the name to mark the 25th anniversary of the Michigan National Guard's collaboration with Latvia under the State Partnership Program (SPP), a security cooperation supported by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. National Guard Bureau.
"This is a special honor for Michigan, and I appreciate the opportunity to support this wonderful partnership," said Snyder. "There are many 'Michigan Avenues' in America, but to my knowledge, this is the first Michigan Avenue in Europe or outside the borders of the United States – and I couldn't think of a prouder place to have it than right here."
In a series of brief remarks, distinguished guests told the story of Latvia's enduring partnership with the Michigan National Guard, including Nancy Pettit, U.S. ambassador to Latvia, Lt. Gen. Leonīds Kalniņš, chief of defense – Republic of Latvia, Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard, and Col. Ilmārs Lejiņš, Latvian infantry brigade commander. Approximately 150 service members from Latvia and the Michigan National Guard were also in attendance.
According to Kalniņš, the Michigan National Guard's collaboration with Latvia was formalized April 27, 1993, shortly after the nation – which borders Russia and the Baltic Sea – regained its independence following a 50-year Soviet occupation. Latvian officials recognized that international partnerships would be crucial as they began the work of building new western-style institutions, including a reliable defense force.
Sharing a similar climate and topography with Latvia, Michigan is also home to a vibrant Latvian-American community pioneered by approximately 5,000 immigrants who sought to escape Soviet brutality during the 1950s. These pre-existing ties made the Latvia-Michigan military collaboration a natural fit.
"Michigan was the first to assist Latvia in developing its military capability," said Kalniņš. "We always mention that all defense capabilities we have right now were started in their development with Michigan."
The Michigan-Latvia relationship was one of the first three state partnerships established by the National Guard Bureau, along with Pennsylvania/Lithuania and Maryland/Estonia. Today, the SPP is recognized as a highly successful global security cooperation, having grown to include 74 unique relationships between partner nations and the National Guard organizations of various U.S. states.
Kalniņš went on to list a number of achievements that have occurred under the SPP banner, including increased capability of Latvia's land force component, development of air support operations at Lielvārde Air Base, and the establishment of a world-class Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) program to direct the action of combat aircraft engaged in close air support and other air operations from a forward position.
The distinguished speakers also discussed three Michigan-Latvia Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) that deployed to Afghanistan from 2009-2010 to assist the development of the Afghan National Army. Two Latvian soldiers were killed in action on these missions. Last year, a street was named for one of them, Sgt. Sgt. Voldemārs Anševics, at Alpena Combat Readiness Center, Mich.
"We have fought, bled and died together in Afghanistan," said Vadnais. "This is a partnership built on mutual trust, and we always say that in a partnership you can't surge trust – it takes time to build that."
Vadnais identified that the SPP relationship is mutually beneficial. He pointed to the testing of interoperability in tactics, techniques and procedures in a coalition environment as a key strength that the SPP has brought to the Michigan National Guard.
"This is a two-way street, just like the exchanges with our Latvian family," he said. "I can tell you, the Michigan National Guard gets as much out of this relationship as we put in."
In her remarks, Pettit acknowledged that the achievements of the Michigan-Latvia partnership are not just a thing of history, offering an ongoing U.S.-funded infrastructure improvement project near the dedication site – facilitated this week by Airmen from the 110th Civil Engineer Squadron, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Michigan – as a case-in-point.
"This project is another example of the continuous cooperation that Latvia and Michigan enjoy," she said. "In future years, Soldiers and Airmen walking down Michigan Avenue will be reminded of the relationship and the steadfast U.S. commitment to a free and independent Latvia."
Lejiņš explained that in the future, this site will be used to house troops from allies and other partner nations at Ādaži. Ādaži is home to NATO's multinational Enhanced Foreign Presence (EFP) battlegroup in Latvia, a voluntary and rotational initiative that aims to boost defense and deterrence capabilities in the eastern part of alliance territory. The fact that these new dormitories will be located on Michigan Avenue is no accident.
"Every time a Polish soldier, or a Canadian, an Italian, or a Spaniard comes to stay at Ādaži, they will live on Michigan Avenue," said Lejiņš. "In that sense, we will spread the word of this beautiful cooperation we have had for twenty-five years, and hopefully will have forever."
Snyder agreed that the full potential of the partnership is yet to be realized, citing economic and cultural exchanges in the civic realm as opportunities for future collaboration.
"I think this road represents the partnership that you've created over the past twenty-five years, because it could be here not just for 25 years, but for a hundred years or more," he said, speaking to service members from Latvia and Michigan. "So you should be really proud of what you've accomplished, but set a high standard – keep raising that bar higher because the more we do together, the more we win together, the more we learn from one another – the better we become together."