COLUMBUS, Ga. – The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the Maryland National Guard from working with its partners Estonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina for more than a year as travel restrictions and other precautions paused all in-person State Partnership Program events.
"By April , all things had stopped in both directions," said U.S. Army Maj. Harrison Bittenbender, Maryland National Guard SPP director. "Schools were put on hold, exercises were canceled, military-to-military events were canceled, and annual trainings, which is where we would bring over a squad-sized group from both Estonia and the Armed Forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina to embed in our units, were canceled."
Now that vaccines are widely available and there are fewer positive cases of the coronavirus, the Maryland National Guard and its partners are beginning to resume planning security cooperation activities.
Brig. Gen. Adam Flasch, director of the joint staff for the MDNG, recently visited members of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina who were attending U.S. military training courses at Fort Benning through the National Guard Bureau's SPP initiatives.
AFBiH infantry officer 1st Lt. Lucija Šimović graduated from the U.S. Army's Maneuver Captains Career Course. In 2017, Šimović was the first woman from the AFBiH to attend the Infantry Officer Basic Leadership Course at Fort Benning.
Flasch said Šimović sacrificed a great deal to leave her home and train in one of the most demanding courses for maneuver professionals.
"Her efforts are worthy of all our time and praise," he said. "Being able to return to the Maneuver Center for Excellence and meet with her and all our AFBiH officers currently training here was an opportunity to continue to invest in our partnership."
During the visit, Flasch also met with 2nd Lts. Armen Okić and Adis Poško, who are attending the Infantry Officer Basic Leadership Course.
Since 2003, the MDNG has had a mutually beneficial partnership with AFBiH. The partnership with Estonia began in 1993. As restrictions are loosened due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, the plan is to resume sending soldiers from Estonia and BiH to Maryland and vice versa to conduct military-to-military events and exercises.
"We are eager to resume our training partnerships with the Maryland National Guard," said AFBiH Col. Zoran Batarilo, defense, military, naval and air attaché for Bosnia and Herzegovina. "When the conditions permit again, we are looking forward to continuing both exercises and SPP activities. The organization of these activities will depend on the future development of the COVID-19 pandemic as it represents a serious health security risk. The health and safety of our citizens remain the top priorities."
Flasch said resuming training is vital for the readiness of MDNG Soldiers, Airmen and their partners.
"The Maryland National Guard has shown itself to be an agile and capable force for good in our communities throughout this pandemic. But with the size of the mission and impacts to our training platforms, we have lost valuable readiness and need to start considering our next phase as we transition from COVID operations back to training," Flasch said.
"Our AFBiH partners share that same commitment and continue to send their members to the United States to train, learn and strengthen their own defense. As we continue to succeed in vaccinating our nation, it is essential to re-engage as a nation to support our allies and work with partners like the Armed Forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Estonia."
SPP supports the security cooperation objectives of the United States and the geographic combatant commands by developing enduring relationships with partner countries.