LIELVĀRDE, Latvia – In the 25-year cooperation between the Michigan National Guard and the National Armed Forces of Latvia, one of the strongest recent areas of focus has been the development of airfield support capability at Lielvārde Air Base, Latvia's main Air Force installation and a major focal point of NATO air operations in the Baltic region.
The most recent chapter in this cross-cultural partnership was written Nov. 16, when a large-scale emergency response exercise was held at the base, bringing together approximately 40 airmen from the National Armed Forces of Latvia, the 110th Attack Wing, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Mich., the 127th Wing, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan, and Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Michigan.
The exercise included four functional areas of specialization: force protection (security), medical, fire protection, and airfield operations. This work between Michigan and Latvia is facilitated under the U.S. Department of Defense's State Partnership Program (SPP), which links the national armed forces of coalition partners with the National Guard assets of respective U.S. states to form mutually beneficial, bilateral relationships. Michigan and Latvia were the first to be paired under the SPP in 1993. The program has since expanded to include 74 other unique relationships worldwide.
Latvia, part of the U.S.S.R. from 1944-1991, was faced with the challenge of creating new, Western-style institutions from scratch – including a functional armed forces – after earning independence from the Soviets. Since then, the Michigan National Guard has been instrumental in the ongoing pursuit of Latvia's defense capability. The program is also credited with improving training opportunities for Soldiers and Airmen in the Michigan National Guard.
Last Friday, the fruits of that cooperation were showcased plainly. Minutes before the exercise kicked off, Lt. Col. Tom Gawrych, 110th Security Forces Squadron commander, explained the scenario expected to unfold.
"It's supposed to be an attempted breach of the airfield perimeter, where a car has hit a barrier by the main gate," Gawrych said. "Force protection specialists are going to react against the suspected breach and then set up a cordon while the fire department responds – they're going to cut into the car to get the passengers out while medical assists with stabilizing the injured. Then, a medevac will take them away from the scene."
Gawrych has been one of the lead coordinators for the force protection line of effort in the Michigan-Latvia partnership. Since his work with Latvian counterparts began a little over a year ago, Gawrych says they've already participated in several exercises together – each one with increasing complexity and scope. In March, Latvian security specialists took part in a multi-jurisdictional exercise at Battle Creek ANG Base, which simulated response to an active shooter scenario. Joining them in the exercise were law enforcement officers from the Michigan State Police, Calhoun County (Michigan) Sheriff's Department and U.S. military law enforcement personnel from the 110th Security Forces Squadron.
Gawrych says that plans for the force protection cooperation include integrating security counterparts from the neighboring Baltic countries of Estonia and Lithuania into future exercises for a more regional focus.
"In April, we're trying to set up a joint familiarization event to bring Lithuania and Estonia here," said Gawrych. "They also want to do an event with all three Baltic nations at exercise Northern Strike 19 in Michigan next year."
Soon, the lights atop one of Lielvārde's new, state-of-the-art fire trucks were flashing. First responders from the base fire department launched into action, using a "Jaws of Life" tool to cut into the skin of a white van with two passengers inside.
As the firefighters worked, Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Wohlford, Alpena CRTC fire chief, shadowed the Lielvārde fire department training manager, Pfc. Arnis Uzijs, but offered only minimal coaching and advice.
"It's really cool to see them develop," said Wohlford. "I was trying to stay back and let Uzijs take the lead; setting up, critiquing and running the exercise. That's what we want – we want them to do their own thing."
Wohlford, who has been to Latvia an average of five times a year since 2013, supporting the development of the base's fire department, said he was very impressed with the proficiency he observed.
"Uzijs caught things I didn't even see during the exercise – like people who didn't have the proper protective equipment – so I thought that was pretty cool," said Wohlford. "He also made sure we kept cooperation between firefighters, medics and security."
Cpl. Aleksandrs Tomsons, Lielvārde Air Base fire chief, points to his team's skill as a testament to the quality of their prior teamwork with Michigan colleagues, which has improved the compatibility and skill level of firefighters on both sides of the partnership. This includes a specialized HAZMAT course he attended with other Latvian firefighters in March, and his team's participation in August at exercise Northern Strike 18, the U.S. reserve component's largest annual readiness event. Both events were held at Alpena CRTC.
"The cooperation is awesome, and things really went together well today," Tomsons said. "It will help us a lot in the future, because it's our duty to respond to events like this – we are practicing and getting better and better."
Once firefighters removed the injured personnel from the vehicle, medical specialists worked to simulate their stabilization and preparation for airlift. Chief Master Sgt. Jerome Torres, Alpena CRTC airfield manager, watched as Latvian personnel orchestrated the communication that would call in a Latvian Mi-17 helicopter to evacuate the patients.
"The command and control was really good," Wohlford said. "Establishing on-scene command, setting it up, and calling in the resources to get them to the scene – including the aircraft."
Moments after the helicopter landed in the exercise area, medics rushed the stretcher-bound patients onboard, ducking to avoid the aircraft's churning rotors. Once the chopper had hovered away, participants immediately began assessing the sequence of events for areas of improvement.
Maj. Kaspars Skudrovs, airfield operations manager at Lielvārde AB, said that overall, the exercise went very smoothly.
"From my side, it looked good," said Skudrovs. "All the planning processes during the week were conducted at a high level, and everyone on-scene knew their place."
In August, Skudrovs visited Battle Creek ANG Base, along with Col. Armands Saltups, Latvia's Air Force commander, to discuss future opportunities for continued collaboration between airmen. He pointed out that the work of building capability becomes easier as personal relationships and trust between counterparts continues to develop with each engagement.
"Thank you to the Michigan National Guard for the expertise you have shared, not only this week, but for several years, incorporating and working together," said Skudrovs. "In all areas, we will continue working together and trying new things. It is one thing to merely receive knowledge – but to actually do it together is another thing completely."