MONROVIA, Liberia – Situated 700 miles south of Africa’s Sahara Desert and 435 miles north of the equator, Monrovia rarely dips below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a sub-Saharan beachside paradise teeming with lush green fauna and palm trees.
Ties to the United States are deep and unmistakable. Liberia was the first African country to declare independence, led by the American Colonization Society in the early to mid-1800s. Monrovia’s capital was named after James Monroe, founding father and fifth U.S. president. Even the Liberian national flag resembles the American flag. The original design was stitched together by formerly enslaved Black people born in the United States.
“The connection to the U.S. is strong: Ten of the first 12 Liberian presidents were born in the United States,” said Michael McCarthy, U.S. ambassador to Liberia.
In November 2009, the ties grew stronger as the Michigan National Guard (MING) began work with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) under the State Partnership Program (SPP). The MING has also partnered with the Latvian National Armed Forces (LNAF) under the program since 1993. In the newer partnership, the Michigan Guard assisted Liberia with its medical response to infectious disease, engineering support and an exchange of military best practices.
The SPP is unique in that it links a state’s National Guard with the military forces of a partner country in a mutually beneficial military relationship. Michigan has hosted a variety of Latvian and Liberian service members, from generals to infantry Soldiers, at key leader engagements and live-fire exercises during training events such as Northern Strike, held annually at the National All-Domain Warfighting Center (NADWC) in Northern Michigan.
The partnership was mostly MING/Latvia and MING/Liberia until recently. Military leaders from all three entities met last year in Michigan to discuss increasing interoperability and mutual support between Liberia and Latvia. To strengthen the relationship, the three SPP partners conducted a key leader engagement in Monrovia Feb. 4-13.
“It just makes sense,” said U.S. Army Capt. Rob Mason, MING’s Security Cooperation Division desk officer for U.S. European Command (EUCOM). “Latvia and MING have learned so much from each other over our nearly 30-year partnership, and this is a great opportunity to gain new understanding through reciprocal exchanges with our AFL counterparts.”
U.S. Army Maj. Catalin Bugan, MING’s bilateral affairs officer to U.S. European Command (EUCOM) in Latvia, agreed.
“Latvia’s military is well-respected in NATO, and they’ve served side by side with MING Soldiers in Afghanistan on multiple occasions. Additionally, the country plans to host a large, multinational military exercise in Europe in the coming months,” said Bugan. “There’s no reason why Latvia and Liberia can’t share their unique experience and expertise with one another, especially as Liberia stands up its multinational noncommissioned officer academy.”
Latvian and Liberian military personnel frequently travel to other countries, exchanging best practices with regional partners and NATO allies, including the United States, to build military expertise and conduct peacekeeping missions.
U.S. Army Col. Ravi Wagh, MING’s state operations officer (J3), attended the U.S. Army War College with AFL military leadership. He also commands the Indiana National Guard’s 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), assisting and advising foreign militaries. Wagh’s visit to Monrovia in February was just the latest in a long line of SPP engagements dating back to 2014.
Wagh has focused the past several years on increasing the readiness of the Latvian and Liberian militaries.
“Sharing of military expertise and resources between partner countries is not a new concept,” said Wagh. “However, the fact that Michigan is playing a prominent role in facilitating this exchange between Latvia and Liberia is very exciting. It demonstrates the exceptional capabilities and leadership of our state’s National Guard.”
The trilateral relationship has grown, leading to this most recent key leader engagement in Monrovia.
MING sent traveling contact teams to Liberia and Latvia numerous times to strengthen relationships, offer medical and engineering support, and develop the military specialties of service members.
“In the past year, we coordinated visits to Liberia from MING engineer units such as the 107th Engineer Battalion as well as medical support from the 110th Wing, 127th Wing and the 126th Infantry Regiment,” said Maj. Jason Everts, MING’s bilateral affairs officer to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in Liberia. “The 107th assisted with various projects to include perimeter reinforcement and emplacement of concertina wire around key facilities.”
MING medical teams assisted in multiple areas, including the grand opening of a military hospital in Monrovia in September that serves military personnel and civilians.
“Michigan has been a tremendous partner for us,” said AFL’s Maj. Joseph Kowo, commander of the hospital. “They helped us make this the very first military hospital in the country’s history.”
Kowo indicated the hospital had a lower COVID death rate than others throughout the country, primarily because of military training and assistance from MING during a recent Ebola outbreak.
“We established best practices from past outbreaks and were better prepared,” Kowo said.
The AFL’s motto is “A Force for Good.” Its success with the hospital says something about the determination of Liberia’s military to make a positive difference in the country.
“Reports from the United Nations and other partners all speak to the hard work and professionalism of the AFL,” added Wagh.
Additionally, the three partners share the goal of strengthening their numbers while increasing diversity. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, MING’s adjutant general, saw this firsthand while touring the hospital.
“This is a very progressive hospital and military force,” said Rogers. “Many females currently serve on staff at the hospital, including Liberian-born Dr. Zoe Parwan, the chief medical officer for the facility. Additionally, female AFL Soldiers or spouses of current servicemembers serve in prominent roles ranging from neonatal care to medical triage."
“A logical result in the trilateral relationship is for LNAF and AFL to conduct joint exercises,” said Rogers. “All three SPP partners are here in Liberia to discuss the next steps to make that a reality. It’s truly a momentous and mutually beneficial endeavor.”
Liberian Maj. Gen. Prince C. Johnson III, AFL’s chief of staff, provided some insight during the engagement into how far the AFL has come.
“We went from the seventh-worst organization in the country during the civil war era to one of the best, most well-respected militaries in the region,” said Johnson. “MING played a large role in developing our capabilities. We look forward to what comes next.”
Johnson said the AFL has gone from observing exercises like Northern Strike to training on the same tactics and supporting other militaries in the region.
“We have expanded into three other partner countries. We even have an operational presence in Mali, our northern neighbor.” Johnson said.
Also in attendance at the February key leader engagement was LNAF Brig. Gen. Imants Ziedins, deputy chief of defense for Latvia. He shared how his forces also operate in Mali, together with Liberia and multiple other nations.
“We look forward to further expanding this partnership,” Ziedins said. “We could all benefit from training in multiple operational environments.”