RIGA, Latvia – On a crisp autumn afternoon, rays of sunlight pierced the overcast, hitting shades of red, white, and blue with stunning vibrancy as they passed the reviewing stand.
The scene was the Republic of Latvia’s 100th anniversary Independence Day parade, held Nov. 18 along the Daugava River in Riga, Latvia’s capital city.
For a moment, all eyes fixed on the joint-service U.S. color guard as it escorted the flags of the U.S. and the State of Michigan in lockstep. The American colors detail included a total of eight personnel: three Soldiers and three Airmen from the Michigan National Guard, a Marine from the Marine Security Guard Detachment - Latvia, and a sailor assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania.
The parade was an impressive spectacle by any estimation. According to Latvia’s Ministry of Defense, more than 1,700 military personnel from 22 nations participated, with approximately 100,000 spectators lining the streets. The parade marked 100 years to the day since Latvia was declared an independent nation following World War I.
Prior to that, Latvia had been a territory of the Russian Empire. Together with dozens of tanks, military vehicles, aircraft, and artillery, the procession of troops made a peaceful show of force that highlighted the solidarity between Latvia and its most important defense partners – including NATO, and the multinational troops deployed in-country as a part of the treaty organization’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battle Group.
But on this day of allies, there was special significance in the prominent place of the State of Michigan’s flag in the procession: Michigan is one of Latvia’s strongest proponents abroad, with close cultural ties that served as the catalyst for a robust defense cooperation under the U.S. Defense Department’s State Partnership Program (SPP), now in its 25th year. The SPP links the National Armed Forces of a coalition nation with the National Guard assets of a U.S. state, promoting long-term, mutually beneficial cooperation.
Several dozen Soldiers and Airmen from the Michigan National Guard were on hand to celebrate the historic parade with their Latvian colleagues. Among them was Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, Michigan National Guard adjutant general, who has been a part of Michigan’s SPP relationship with Latvia since nearly the beginning.
"I'm very proud of the way the Latvians have improved their readiness through training and modernization – they are a capable force that has integrated with not only the U.S. and Michigan National Guard, but all NATO countries in the eFP,” said Vadnais. “That was very apparent during the parade and it made me proud that they are our partner nation under the SPP.”
Within the Baltic region’s tense security environment, the strategic implications of the parade’s affirmation of support for Latvia are vast. But for the Soldiers and Airmen marching, the effect was also deeply personal – and for very different reasons.
“I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Master Sgt. Justin Smith, a power production specialist at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Michigan, who carried the State of Michigan flag. “I’ve never been part of an international parade before, and then to be a part of Latvia’s 100th anniversary parade is really an honor.”
Smith had traveled to Latvia under the SPP once before in 2016, working to develop capability at Lielvārde Air Base – one of the Michigan-Latvia partnership’s recent areas of emphasis. Despite the fact that there were thousands of eyes trained upon him, Smith said that during the parade he had no problem staying on task.
“I just focused on doing my part to help the group do its best,” said Smith. “What struck me was the pride that each of the other nations took in the way they presented themselves and the high level of professionalism of our allies.”
For Staff Sgt. Clifford Mua, Michigan National Guard Joint Force Headquarters, Lansing, Mich., carrying the U.S. colors was the realization of a long-held dream. A native of the African nation of Cameroon, Mua was keenly aware of the specific values symbolized by the American flag.
“Our values are selflessness; making the world a better place for everyone – you don’t necessarily have to be an American for us to be there to help; we do what’s right, and we love peace,” said Mua. “Those are the good values that we’ve carried ever since our country began and that’s what we were carrying out there today.”
Mua, who came to the U.S. in 2013 and enlisted in the Michigan Air National Guard a year later, says his experience in America feels like a surreal transformation.
“I remember seeing American military personnel on television in Cameroon and thinking, ‘I want to be part of that, too,'” said Mua. “It wasn’t that long ago, and today I feel like carrying the American flag is the best thing I’ve done in my life.”
Although this was Mua’s first time in Latvia, he hopes to return as soon as possible.
“It’s so beautiful that they have this unique culture for themselves,” he said. “I’m so happy that the Latvians are our partners.”
After a period of independence from 1918-1940, Latvia’s culture – which includes a rich heritage in language, architecture, and music – was severely threatened by the chaos of two world wars and nearly 50 years of brutal occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviet period was especially ruthless, marked by mass executions and deportations that prompted the re-location of approximately 5,000 Latvians to Michigan as refugees, due in part to the similar climate and terrain. But through the darkness of occupation, Latvia's resilience prevailed, and its people emerged from behind the Iron Curtain to forge new, democratic institutions for themselves in the early 1990s.
One of the free Latvian government’s greatest challenges in this second period of independence was the crafting of its own defense capability. In early 1993, a request for assistance was answered by the fledging SPP. Acknowledging the large population of Latvian-Americans living in the state, Latvia and Michigan were the first to be aligned under the program. Since then, the SPP has expanded to include 74 other unique, bilateral relationships worldwide. The partnership between Michigan and Latvia has been particularly successful, with major areas of cooperation in explosive ordnance disposal, airfield operations, cyber defense, and Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) capability.
From 2009-2010, soldiers from Latvia and the Michigan National Guard also deployed together on a series of three Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) missions in Afghanistan. 1st Sgt. Shawn Menard and Staff Sgt. Theodore Olson fought side-by-side with their Latvian counterparts on the first of these joint deployments.
Menard, presently assigned to the Michigan National Guard Joint Force Headquarters, was involved in heavy fighting on May 1, 2009 – the same day two Latvian soldiers, Sgt. Voldemārs Anševics and Pfc. Andrejs Merkuševs, were killed in action when their observation post was overrun by Taliban forces.
Menard had a line of sight on their position from a neighboring observation point as the Latvians, along with three Americans, attempted to hold their ground against a company-sized element of insurgents.
“It looked like everybody in the whole world was shooting at them,” said Menard. “There were tracers flying in from seven or eight positions.”
It was fitting for Menard and Olson to serve as riflemen in the parade, marching alongside the U.S. and State of Michigan flags.
“I’ve actually been in the parade twice before,” said Menard. “I carried the colors in 2013, the first time the Michigan National Guard had a presence in the Latvian Independence Day parade."
While Menard is proud to have represented the U.S. and the Michigan National Guard in the color guard, he said that the highlight of the trip for him was meeting up again with his Latvian brothers.
“For me, it’s more of an emotional connection to the people in Latvia,” said Menard. “If those guys called me up, I would go anywhere, anytime with that group of soldiers.”
Michigan National Guard members Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Corrigan, 107th Engineering Battalion, Ishpeming, Mich., and Staff Sgt. Andrew Froese, 127th Security Forces Squadron, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan, also joined in the color guard, carrying the Army and Air Force service flags, respectively.
While the personal experiences of participating solders and airmen speak to the human impact of the Michigan-Latvia partnership, Vadnais said that in a broader sense, the Michigan color guard also represents the program’s strategic past, present, and future.
“It means a lot: after 25 years of the best SPP engagements, this literally carries our partnership another step forward, and we continue to look at new ways to engage beyond the normal partnership,” said Vadnais. “Having the Michigan colors fly is a reminder of the best 25 years and a commitment to the next 25.”
For Vadnais, the visit marked his last foreign trip as adjutant general – he will retire after more than 40 years of service on Dec. 1st. Latvia’s Chief of Defense, Lt. Gen. Leonīds Kalniņš, held a heartfelt reception in Vadnais’ honor Friday, Nov. 16th at the Ministry of Defense in Riga.
“This may be the last trip for me as adjutant general, but it won’t be my last trip to Latvia,” said Vadnais. “We’ll always be partners, but more importantly, we’ll always be family.”
Before Sunday’s parade, Vadnais and Kalniņš took part in a traditional flower-laying ceremony at the foot of Riga’s iconic Freedom Monument, together with Raimonds Bergmanis, Latvia’s Minister of Defense, Adm. Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, Norway’s chief of defense, Lt. Gen. Stephen Twitty, deputy commander, U.S. European Command, and Maj. Gen. Leonard Isabelle, assistant adjutant general, Michigan Air National Guard.
In the same way that Sunday’s parade showcased not only Latvia's own defense capability, but a united celebration of support for Latvia, the participation of a diverse cadre of military leadership at the flower-laying ceremony signaled a strong coalition’s readiness to defend Latvia against any threat.
“This is our 100-year anniversary, and I am very proud of our National Armed Forces, our National Guard, and all who have been together with us for this parade and today’s events,” said Bergmanis. “Together with our allies, I think we have sent the message that we are ready to defend our common values. This is a crucial moment for all of Latvia because it gives us such confidence to see everyone united by common purpose.”