SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina – Upbeat jazz and ragtime-influenced music filled the cavernous main room of the Bosnia-Herzegovina armed forces' Army Hall in downtown Sarajevo as Maryland National Guard and Bosnian armed forces members came together to celebrate 15 years of partnership in the U.S. Department of Defense's State Partnership Program.
"When I really think about how to summarize this partnership of 15 years," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, "all I can say is that for me it has been life changing."
The SPP pairs National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide. Begun in 1993, the program has grown to include 75 partnerships with 81 countries.
For many, the effects of the partnership with Bosnia-Herzegovina can be seen in the way it's grown over the past decade and a half, beginning with small training events and expanding to see Bosnian armed forces members deploy alongside Maryland Guard units to Afghanistan.
"In my opinion, the crown of this 15 years of cooperation was the joint deployment of the military police unit from the armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Maryland National Guard to the mission in Afghanistan," said Bosnia-Herzegovina army Lt. Gen. Senad Mašović, the chief of the joint staff of the Bosnia-Herzegovina armed forces.
For others, the most rewarding part has simply been seeing the growth itself.
"It's been a rewarding experience for me," said Army Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, the Maryland Guard's assistant adjutant general for Army, "to see where the country was and where we are now. It's really exciting to see that change."
Singh, Birckhead and other Maryland Guard senior leaders recently spent time in Bosnia-Herzegovina, both as part of celebrations marking the 15-year anniversary, but also to map out future plans for the partnership. Those plans include expanding noncommissioned officer leadership training, disaster response training as well as boosting cyber capabilities.
"We really need to start moving forward in the area of cyber," said Singh, adding that a forum focused on cyber capabilities is in the works. "We're already moving forward, looking at how we would host this forum in Maryland, and that would be in partnership with Bosnia and Herzegovina."
That forum and focus on cyber also means first asking what cyber capabilities mean for the Bosnia-Herzegovina armed forces, said Singh.
"What cyber means for us might be slightly different from what cyber means for Bosnia and Herzegovina," she said, adding that working with the Bosnia-Herzegovina armed forces to build greater cyber capabilities also brings larger effects.
"This will help to put Bosnia and Herzegovina in the lead for the region and for us to be looking at regional cyber security cooperation," said Singh.
Future plans also include possibly expanding aviation capabilities and training.
"There hasn't been a ton of Air [National Guard] involvement," said Air Force Brig. Gen. April Vogel, the Maryland Guard's assistant adjutant general for Air. "Most of the focus of our partnership has been on the Army side of the house."
Vogel added that one thing she's looking into while in Bosnia-Herzegovina is how that imbalance could change.
"We're coming here so I can understand all the places we have been [throughout the partnership] and where our [the Maryland Air National Guard's] specific air capabilities may be able to fit in."
That may include roles on the ground as well as in the air.
"I think we could possibly contribute on the domestic operations side of the house – just given the discussions on the [Bosnia-Herzegovina explosive ordnance disposal] teams and what they do – and disaster response," said Vogel. "And then any sort of ground training we could participate in with regard to aviation."
The larger goal, said Vogel, is simply learning from each other.
"The purpose of the partnership as a whole is to develop relationships and learn from each other," she said. "I think the best part about it is that it's mutually beneficial."
Developing those relationships also means continued tri-lateral training exercises with the Estonian armed forces, also partnered with the Maryland Guard and one of the three original partnerships in the SPP. Doing so expands interoperability between partners.
"If we are going to strengthen our abilities, then we have to do them together," said Singh, adding that working together builds larger, intangible skills and abilities.
"The easy things are for me to provide resources," she said. "The harder things are to make a personal connection."
Those personal connections have been made over the past 15 years, said Singh, who sees those connections growing stronger over the next 15 years and more.
"It would be nice if I could be here 85 years from now, so I could celebrate 100 years with Bosnia and Herzegovina," she said. "I know that our future leadership will continue to celebrate year after year."
"The fact that we've made it 15 years and we're continuing to see progress and talking about 20 and 30 years, that shows a significant commitment to each other and to doing the right thing for our services," said Vogel.
For Vogel, that, in part, made the 15-year celebrations at Army Hall, and the continued partnership, something noteworthy.
"This trip in particular was really special, but in general it makes me feel like I'm part of something really cool," she said.