RIGA, Latvia – The melody of Latvia's national anthem echoes, warming the crowd of tens of thousands with a spirit more than 100 years in the making. The words mean "God bless Latvia," and on this day, Nov. 18, 2019, the blessing of democracy has united more than 800 military personnel from 21 allied countries to take part in Latvia's 101st Independence Day Parade.
From the United States, four Airmen from the Michigan Air National Guard marched in the parade – an especially significant representation considering the Michigan National Guard's enduring 26-year defense cooperation with Latvia under the U.S. National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program. The SPP links a unique component of the Defense Department – a state's National Guard – with the armed forces of a partner country in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship.
Latvia and the U.S. share close diplomatic bonds, acknowledged in a statement released the morning of the parade by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulating Latvia on its independence, regained in 1991 after a long era of Soviet occupation during the Cold War.
"The United States and Latvia share a commitment to democratic values and to the protection of human freedoms," Pompeo said. "Today, Latvia is recognized internationally as a vibrant, flourishing democracy that stands as a powerful example of the success and strength of our transatlantic community."
Midway through the parade, the color guard passed a formal review podium, offering a salute to Latvian President Egils Levits and other Latvian and allied dignitaries. Among them was Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard. Earlier in the day, Rogers participated alongside Latvian civilian and military leaders in a ceremonial wreath-laying at Riga's iconic Freedom Monument to honor Latvians who perished fighting for their country's independence.
Rogers' visit, his first during Latvia's Independence Day celebration since assuming the position of adjutant general in January, marked a strong affirmation of support for Latvia and a continuation of the Michigan National Guard's fruitful cooperation with the Latvian National Armed Forces.
"Personally, I am grateful for the invitation to take part in these deeply significant traditions for the first time as adjutant general," said Rogers. "Sharing cultural experiences like these with our Latvian partners is key to reinforcing the relationships and mutual trust that exist as the very bedrock of our partnership's success. With these reinvigorated relationships – and a clear vision for our future cooperation together – we will continue to strive toward innovative solutions with our Latvian partners to support U.S. State Department and U.S. European Command priorities in the Baltic region."
Lt. Gen. Leonīds Kalniņš, chief of defense for Latvia's National Armed Forces, echoed a commitment to carrying the Michigan-Latvia partnership forward.
"For the National Armed Forces of Latvia this long-standing and deep partnership between Latvia and the Michigan National Guard has not just symbolic, but also very meaningful value," he said. "Despite the fact that our countries are located in different time zones, separated by great distance and the ocean, I strongly believe that cooperation between Latvia and Michigan will continue to move forward and our mutual understanding and friendship will run deeper in the future."
Marching with the symbols of these close bilateral ties, Michiganders in the parade thought more about their Latvian counterparts, with whom they have built strong relationships during multiple joint exercises and readiness events.
"I've been coming to Latvia since 2012 and I've probably seen this parade every year since then, so I understand what it means to have this opportunity to represent our partnership here," said Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Wohlford, fire chief at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Michigan. "I think it was really great when our Latvian counterparts came up to us after the parade and thanked us for doing this – it kind of drives home what our cooperation is all about: it's that connection that matters."