ĀDAŽI, Latvia – On the morning of June 9, 2018, members of the 82d Airborne Division staged a parachute drop at Ādaži Military Base, Latvia, as part of exercise Saber Strike 2018.
Observing from the ground was Lt. Col. (ret.) Ivars Sika, a former Michigan National Guard member who was a key player in early engagements between the Michigan National Guard and the National Armed Forces of Latvia under the U.S. National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program (SPP).
Now in its 25th year, the Michigan-Latvia relationship is recognized as one of the longest-standing and most fruitful pairings in the SPP, which has expanded to include 74 unique relationships between partner nations and the National Guard organizations of various U.S. states.
In a sense, observing the parachute drop brings Sika's unique story full-circle. Before his time in the Michigan National Guard, Sika served three years in the 82d Airborne Division as a combat medic.
"It's neat because I've been there, done that," said Sika."And now I get to see the next generation do the same thing."
Born to Latvian immigrants in 1963, Sika grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where his childhood was tightly woven with Kalamazoo's strong Latvian-American community, established by refugees who fled Latvia during the Soviet Union's brutal era of occupation.
Sika recalls attending a Latvian school in Kalamazoo on weekends, which immersed him in the language from an early age. His family attended a Latvian church, and even enrolled Sika into a Boy Scouts of America troop that held their weekly meetings in Latvian. While the Latvian-American community believed that incorporating Latvian into the language of their social dialogue preserved an element of their culture that Soviet power sought to stifle, little did Sika realize that his immersion in the Latvian tongue would eventually serve an even greater purpose during his career in the U.S. Army.
By 1993, Sika had graduated from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at Western Michigan University and was serving as a first lieutenant with the Michigan National Guard's 46th Infantry Brigade. When the opportunity arose in the early 1990s for Michigan to become one of three National Guard organizations to partner with the newly independent Baltic States – the genesis of the U.S. National Guard Bureau's SPP – he was identified as one of only three Latvian speakers in the Michigan National Guard.
"All the units at roll call asked if anyone spoke the languages of any of the countries that were going to get into the state partnership," said Sika."The fact that we had three Latvian-speaking guardsmen helped back up our alignment with Latvia. I'm sure there was no other state that had more than one."
In addition to the three Guard members who spoke the language, there was also Dace Mason, a Latvian-American who, as executive assistant to Michigan Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. E. Gordon Stump, was instrumental in advocating for the Michigan National Guard's link with the country of her – and Sika's – ancestors.
"I remember Gen. Taylor [Brig. Gen. Robert Taylor, assistant adjutant general – Army] saying that they were talking about partnering with a country," said Mason."I think he actually mispronounced it, and I said, ‘Well, is it Latvia?' I really didn't think it could be, but in fact it was. Then, Gen. Stump and I took such an active role in trying to get that country for us – for Michigan."
Stump agrees that Michigan's large Latvian-American community was a major reason that the National Guard partnership was cemented.
"I had some connections with Latvia: my executive assistant, Dace Mason, was of Latvian descent and one of my best friends and his wife were also born in Latvia. So I had an awareness of the country," said Stump."Then, talking to both of them, I found out that we also had a very large Latvian-American population in Michigan, so the idea of the Michigan National Guard working with the Latvian armed forces really seemed to be the perfect partnership for us."
As plans for the partnership began to clarify, Sika received a puzzling summons to the Michigan National Guard Chief of Staff's office.
"I was at the range at Grayling when I was notified of the summons, and everybody said to me, ‘What did you do wrong?' Well, I had no idea," said Sika."When I reported, the chief of staff asked me if I wanted to go to Latvia. So a couple of weeks later I was there on the very first traveling contact team (TCT) for the State Partnership Program."
As translator and cultural advisor for the six-person medical team tasked as the first Michigan National Guard delegation to visit Latvia, Sika was afforded a unique opportunity to witness the progression of history, in more ways than one.
"The very first engagement was a medical one, because in the beginning we weren't allowed to do any tactics, or infantry-type exchanges," said Sika."In the 1990s, you'd come to Riga and then come back 12 months later and the city had changed – democracy was having an effect that rapidly."
For Latvians, the immediate post-independence era was a trying time. After 50 years as a part of the USSR, they were literally building new, Western-style democracies from scratch. Complicating matters was the fact that until August, 1994, Russian military forces were still responsible for security in Latvia.
"This was a heavy, emotional time," said Guntis Ulmanis, Latvia's first post-occupation president."The Soviet strength was still there, but at the same time, our people were standing up on their own feet. Russia was confused; they didn't have time to worry about the problems in Latvia, so as Latvians, we started solving them ourselves. We did it very thoughtfully and with much conviction."
Against this backdrop, the mere presence of a Michigan National Guard member was significant to Latvians.
"We understood that we had a lot of support and belief," said Ulmanis."There was an American general in Latvia! Stump didn't have to do anything – just show up – and it meant something."
Clearly, the future of Latvian institutions would be 180 degrees removed from the Soviet-style structures of the East. This vector was further solidified when the Russian military vandalized buildings they had utilized when they finally departed Latvia in mid-1994.
"In most places, the Russians pulled the wires out of the walls, they broke the windows – that type of thing," said Sika."However, there were other places that got by fairly decently because it all depended on the local Latvians – if they had a connection with the commander, the commander in some cases told his troops not to ransack."
During these early years of the SPP, Sika traveled frequently to Latvia to continue his service as a translator for the Michigan delegations as they built their collaboration with the National Armed Forces of Latvia.
"I've been sent to Latvia by the U.S. government a lot," said Sika."But by 1994, there were a lot of times the Latvians were coming to Michigan, so I was called to translate for those visits also – they'd give me the PowerPoints in advance, and it would be 200-300 slides. That doesn't go fast!"
Even in the first years of the SPP, the benefits of the Michigan National Guard's collaboration with the National Armed Forces of Latvia were mutual. One of the areas where Latvian soldiers showed special proficiency was in explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) – due to the large quantity of ordnance still buried in Latvian soil from the battles of World War I and World War II.
"They actually had more technical expertise and real-world experience disarming Russian munitions," said Sika."It was one of the huge focuses of the early TCTs – it was good for the Michigan Guard because the Latvians could pass on their real-world experience with munitions. And it was good for the Latvians because they got to see our equipment."
In 1996, Sika was sent to the U.S. Embassy in Riga for five months for an active duty special work (ADSW) assignment to support the historic multi-national exercise, Baltic Challenge. As the first coalition exercise held anywhere that had been behind the Iron Curtain, Baltic Challenge brought together soldiers from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and the U.S. – and it occurred entirely in Latvia.
From his post at the embassy, Sika had a rare view of the exercise's inner-workings.
"There was a joint command structure over the exercise with the Latvians, which was really unique," said Sika."I was on the initial planning conference and the embassy did a by-name request for me to come back for the exercise and I basically ran the embassy side – translating, looking at the purchase orders, seeing what we needed."
Sika's time supporting Baltic Challenge also held a special significance for him personally: it was during this five-month stint in Riga that he met his wife, Sanita. A year later, Sika was married with a family living in the U.S.
In July 2000, Sika's wife moved back to Latvia just before their daughter was born. Sika joined her in October of that year and has lived in Latvia ever since. At the time, he was just three years from military retirement eligibility: moving to Latvia permanently was a major risk for his career.
"I basically left the Michigan National Guard with 17 good years and had no idea how I was going to finish," he said.
But, things worked out. Sika was eventually hired into the Latvian Ministry of Defense from 2002-2005 as an advisor, specializing in the application of NATO standards.
In 2005, a year after Latvia's acceptance into NATO – an enormous achievement for an armed force that 11 years earlier had begun its organization and training from scratch – Sika was re-assigned as a plans officer at U.S. Army Europe in Heidelberg, Germany. He spent nearly four years in that role and was involved in the planning of several"Baltic Host" exercises.
"Baltic Host was a test for host nation support – what kind of support NATO nations would need from the locals to basically host an incoming brigade – so I was here for several exercises all through the Baltics."
While stationed in Heidelberg, Sika applied to become a U.S. Army Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO), which required passage of a demanding language-capability test in Latvian. Of course, Sika passed the language proficiency test with flying colors.
"The first time I took the test I got a ‘4' and I was mad. The second time I got a ‘5,'" said Sika."I'm one of the few people who had a five, which is native fluency, the highest rating you can get."
Eventually, Sika worked in the security cooperation division of U.S. Army Europe, until a heart attack led to his medical retirement in 2012. Fully recovered, he now makes his home in Limbaži, Latvia, with his wife and daughters.
"Everything that we – as the Michigan National Guard and the National Armed Forces of Latvia – have done together is quite amazing because when we started, it was a total old-Soviet mindset," said Sika."Now, you can't see that. Latvia's soldiers are equal partners, and it's a two-way street where both armed forces are learning from each other. It's a great thing to see, and it's good to have a feeling of some small contribution toward that."