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Michigan-Latvia partnership overcomes COVID-19 challenges

By Capt. Andrew Layton | Michigan National Guard | July 30, 2020

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GRAYLING, Mich. – For 27 years, members of the Michigan National Guard and the National Armed Forces of Latvia have cooperated side-by-side under the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program (SPP). Since the early 1990s, this rich collaboration has included perennial readiness events in Northern Michigan and Latvia and a trio of combined deployments to Afghanistan.

Time and time again, Michiganders and Latvians have proven that nothing can shake their unbreakable bond – not even the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Michigan-Latvia partnership’s latest triumph is unfolding this week at Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, part of the National All-Domain Warfighting Center in Northern Michigan. Camp Grayling is the 147,000-acre stage that, along with Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, plays host for Northern Strike during the last two weeks of July. Northern Strike is the National Guard Bureau’s premier annual joint fires readiness event.

The Latvian contingent at Northern Strike 20 includes Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, Joint Forward Observers, and a special operations team.

“The Michigan National Guard cherishes its vibrant link with the National Armed Forces of Latvia. We welcome our Latvian colleagues to Northern Strike again this year,” said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, Adjutant General and Director of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “I commend the herculean efforts of our partners to make this journey during a challenging time. Their presence at Northern Strike enriches this exercise’s dynamic joint fires environment. It stands as yet another sign that this partnership will go to any length to find solutions to our mutual challenges – and ultimately, to win.”

While Northern Strike typically draws 6,000 – 7,000 personnel from every U.S. service component and multiple coalition partners, participation in Northern Strike 20 will be a fraction of that due to factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Michigan National Guard has partnered with public health officials to develop a comprehensive plan that allows Northern Strike to continue, thanks to numerous risk-mitigating precautions to safeguard participants and communities as the training goes on.

“Other partner nations and states did not attend Northern Strike this year, but Latvia displayed their strong commitment to the partnership by persisting,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brook Sweitzer, Michigan National Guard Bilateral Affairs Officer at the U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation in Riga, Latvia. “Several measures were taken to mitigate the risk of disease spread, including testing before leaving Latvia for Michigan, screening during the Latvians’ stay in Michigan, and additional pre-departure screening before their return to Latvia.”

What motivated Latvian military personnel to make the long trip to Northern Michigan in 2020, of all years, goes much deeper than sentimental tradition. With multiple forms of convergence that advance interoperability across multi-component, multinational, and interagency partners, the opportunity Northern Strike presents for its training audience is too important to miss.

“This exercise is different because we can integrate close air support with different units,” said Sgt. Eddy Hermanson, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the Latvian National Armed Forces. “Working with the Michigan National Guard here is important because this is the place we can widely work with the fighter jets in different, difficult scenarios. The values we take from this exercise are proficiency and maintaining our currency in our main tasks.”

Latvia is one of the first NATO countries to send forces to the U.S. for readiness events since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020. Risk mitigation policies for exercise participants at Camp Grayling and Alpena CRTC incorporate COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). These countermeasures include daily screenings, social distancing, required use of masks when social distancing is not possible, and frequent sanitization.

“I am very thankful and highly appreciate that the exercise Northern Strike organizers have overcome COVID-19-related challenges and worked through to make the exercise happen this year. I am very proud and honored that Latvian soldiers have an opportunity to participate in this very demanding, well-organized multinational exercise. This exercise brings together the multi-spectrum, multi-domain, and joint live-fire integration environment and capabilities,” said Lt. Gen. Leonids Kalniņš, Chief of Defense, Latvian National Armed Forces. “Exercise Northern Strike is a valuable opportunity to reinforce interoperability and long-standing cooperation between Latvia and the Michigan National Guard – this training experience is crucial for Latvia because it provides an excellent platform to train in a realistic military environment.”