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Michigan-Latvia partnership supports Special Ops exercise

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jerome Torres, airfield manager of Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center (CRTC), Alpena, Mich., reviews airfield status with Latvian Lt. Liba Mikova, from Lielvārde Air Base, Latvia, as part of the Emerald Warrior 20 exercise at the CRTC Jan. 23, 2020. The two nations have been linked since 1993 under the State Partnership Program. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jacob Cessna)

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jerome Torres, airfield manager of Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center (CRTC), Alpena, Mich., reviews airfield status with Latvian Lt. Liba Mikova, from Lielvārde Air Base, Latvia, as part of the Emerald Warrior 20 exercise at the CRTC Jan. 23, 2020. The two nations have been linked since 1993 under the State Partnership Program. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jacob Cessna)

ALPENA, Mich. -- Two men stand at the main desk inside Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center’s base operations facility. Together, they review the flying schedule, weather forecast and airfield status updates on a large, wall-mounted monitor at the start of a new workday.

They wear different uniforms, but their mission is the same.

“The most important part of airfield operations is to coordinate,” says Latvian Air Force Capt. Kaspars Višņekovs, airfield operations manager at Lielvārde Air Base, Latvia. “That means working with aircrews, airfield services and other agencies to provide an environment to keep those air operations going.”

Višņekovs, along with his team from Lielvārde – including specialists in airfield ground equipment, air traffic control, civil engineering and snow removal – are in Michigan this winter to augment and observe operations at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center amid the challenges of frosty, Arctic-like weather conditions. Their stay coincides with Emerald Warrior 20, an Air Force Special Operations Command exercise staging from several locations across the continental U.S., including Alpena.

“With our Latvian partners here, our goal is to provide an opportunity for them to see how we support a large-scale U.S. exercise,” says Višņekov’s Michigan counterpart, Chief Master Sgt. Jerome Torres, airfield manager at Alpena CRTC. “That covers everything from snow removal, to refueling, to getting everything ready to go so our visiting units can complete their training objectives successfully.”

Emerald Warrior is a Department of Defense exercise focusing on irregular warfare in a joint, NATO combined, realistic training environment. This training hones special operations forces’ air and ground combat skills and the development of improved tactics, techniques and procedures while strengthening relationships for future deployments.

The joint military training complex of Northern Michigan, which includes Alpena CRTC and Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, provides a pristine backdrop for a dynamic readiness event of this scope, offering more than 147,000 acres of ground maneuver area and the largest military training airspace east of the Mississippi River.

For Višņekovs, Michigan is also an apt training environment because of its shared topography with Latvia.

“We have a very similar climate in Latvia, and we feel at home here in Michigan, also,” he said. “Sometimes, I would say the only way you can feel the difference is because of those seven hours of jet lag.”

The January visit is the latest chapter in a long history of mutually beneficial cooperation between Michigan and Latvia, originally linked under the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program in 1993. In the focus area of airfield operations alone, achievements include massive infrastructure improvements at Lielvārde Air Base (now a focal point of NATO air operations in the Baltic region) and augmented capability during other major events hosted at Alpena CRTC, such as Northern Strike, the largest U.S. joint reserve-component exercise.

Torres says the Michigan-Latvia partnership continues to blossom by helping the CRTC achieve its vision of forging lethal warfighters.

“It helps a lot to have a different perspective on airfield operations at an exercise like this,” he says. “We are always striving for higher standards, so we’ll take the best practices from Lielvārde Air Base that our partners share with us and adapt them into our procedures here.”

Having been to Alpena numerous times since 2015, Višņekovs adds that through their journey together, he and Torres have bonded. He fondly recalls several opportunities to celebrate U.S. holidays with Torres and his family.

“Fourth of July in Michigan was awesome,” he says.

Torres agrees, pointing to mutual trust as the secret behind everything Michigan and Latvia have, and will, achieve together.

“We learn from each other. We’re both growing, personally and professionally,” he says, clasping Višņekovs on the shoulder. “That’s the biggest takeaway for me.”

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