LANSING, Mich. - Dace Mason's family left the Baltic seaside country of Latvia in the late 1940s with hope and a near-certainty that the family would one day return to their 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 their 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. They 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 their independence again but the family never did return to their homeland.
Mason is now the administrative assistant to Michigan National Guard Army Maj. Gen. 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 Maj. Gen. 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.
According to Stump, when given the choice of a country to cooperate with, the choice was simple, "I chose Latvia because one of my best friends and my assistant were Latvians. Before that, I only knew Latvia from my friends' stories."
This year marks 20 years since the Republic of Latvia and the state of Michigan began their involvement in the State Partnership Program. 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 relationships as members of the National Guard's SPP. One initial objective of the SPP was to assist the Republic of Latvia to transition to a citizen-based military and building relationships with the Latvians was integral to this goal. During the Soviet occupation, there had been no national military establishment in Latvia. An estimated 40,000 former Soviet soldiers and an untold number of Soviet security-agents remained in Latvia when the Michigan Guardsmen came to Latvia on the first visit. The Michigan Guardsmen began this first mission with a week-long basic emergency medical course to the Latvian National Guard in Cesis, Latvia.
Retired Air National Guard Lt. Col. Brian Downey, the public affairs officer for the Michigan National Guard in 1994, noted in the Spring 1994 Wolverine Guard magazine that the Michigan Guard leadership understood they could not transport Michigan's solutions and force structure directly to Latvia because there were too many differences. What could be transferred to them were democratic principles such as the idea of separation of powers. 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 in 1993. Beginning in 1994, joint military exercises have been held in Europe and the U.S. In 1996, Michigan Guardsmen from the 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry, based in Big Rapids, Mich., 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 multi-national 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 multi-national 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 the related exercises were all factors that assisted in Latvia's accession to NATO in 2004.
The partnership has been a two-way exchange of information and learning. As the SPP team began to pursue opportunities to deploy in support of a peacekeeping mission, the International Security Assistance Force leadership was asking for more countries to participate in missions in 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 senior leader endorsed the proposal. The joint Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team was established in January 2008.
To enhance the Latvians' capabilities in directing close air support and indirect fire, it was proposed that they develop Joint Terminal Attack Controller capabilities to ensure the OMLT had the required technical and communication expertise needed. Lt. Col. Andrew Roberts, a Michigan Air National Guard pilot who was serving as commander of the Grayling Air Gunnery Range in 2008, said that Michigan led in the development of the training initiative.
"Latvia was the first nation to join the JTAC training program with literally non-existing Air Force capability," said Roberts, who is now serving as the bilateral affairs officer in Latvia.
Heavy emphasis was put on the JTAC program. The engagement was judged successful with the Latvian program receiving full certification in 2010. To date, many Latvians are now U.S., JTAC certified by Michigan Guardsmen assigned to the Alpena, Combat Readiness Training Center. In March 2012, the Latvian JTACs were in Michigan training at the Grayling Air Gunnery Range and the CRTC. The current range commander, Lt. Col. Timothy Brock, expounded on the cost effectiveness of having JTACs trained as opposed to other options.
"The cost benefit of having a JTAC as opposed to a lot of tanks...brings to bear a lot of NATO assets, for a country such as Latvia, when you are trying to decide where to spend your defense dollars, to train one JTAC is a lot cheaper than to buy a tank," said Brock.
Between November 2008 and December 2010, Michigan and Latvian National Guard members became the first in the SPP program to deploy as an operational and mentoring team. The team served three, nine-month tours as an OMLT in the mountains of Afghanistan. Sadly, during the first deployment, two Latvian soldiers, Sgt. Voldemars Ansevics and Cpl. Andrejs Merkuservs were killed during a battle at the combat outpost Bari Alai on May 1, 2009. The Latvian soldiers framed pictures are included in the "Hall of Heroes" at the Joint Force Headquarters in Lansing, Mich., alongside the 21 Michigan Army Guardsman who have died in direct 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 National Guard and has seen first-hand the Latvians' receptivity to work with the Michigan military. This year more than 24 events will occur between the two partners that range from JTAC training trips to Grayling, exercise planning in Latvia, and a number of cyber defense events conducted across the Baltics. Maj. Gen. Vadnais has invited the Latvians to support in the development of Liberia, Michigan's newest SPP partner.
To date, the Latvians have supported three traveling contact teams to Liberia which 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 that will mark the way forward. Michigan and Latvia will be working 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 long-term partnership.