<b>VAf"RSKA, Estonia</b> - On a blistery cold afternoon in front of the VAfA$rska border control center, a small group gathered to mark the successful culmination of a U.S.-Estonia partnership and the newest deterrent in counter-narcotics and border control.

With women dressed in traditional Estonian wear holding a ribbon and several pairs of oversized scissors, members of the Estonia Police and Border Guard Bureau, U.S. Embassy Tallinn, U.S. European Command, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District officially opened a $240,000 helicopter landing pad.

During the ceremony, TonAfA(th) Hunt, deputy director general of the Police and Border Guard, spoke of promises made between partners.

"A promise was made at the beginning of this project," said Hunt. "Today, we fulfill the promise with this very important landing pad."

The 10-by-10 meter illuminated landing pad, funded by EUCOM's Counter Narcotics and Terrorism program with construction managed by the Europe District, is one of two new helicopter pads in Estonia that will support border control and police operations. The second is located on the northern border in Narva.

Upgrades to the helipads included landing pad lights and markings, illuminated wind socks, new electrical systems, and the installation of fuel pumps and tanks.

In addition to the helipad improvements, the nearly $560,000 project at Narva's border crossing station included a new enclosed hanger that will serve as a maintenance facility for helicopters.

"These two [border crossing] stations can operate more efficiently because of the upgrades that have been made," said Col. John Kem, Europe District commander, during the ceremony. "The fuel pump and tank allow helicopters to refuel here instead of flying back to Tallinn or Tartu, saving both time and manpower."

Prior to the installation of the fuel stations, helicopters were forced to refuel at the capital city of Tallinn, located almost 170 miles away, or Tartu, nearly 60 miles away. Neither city is close enough to be considered efficient, said Erkki Koort, deputy secretary-general for Internal Security for the Ministry of the Interior.

VAfA$rska is just over one mile from the Russian border and Narva is even closer to the border. Controlling traffic - both legal and illegal - is the primary mission of the country's Police and Border Guard, said Koort.

"Having both new helicopter pads gives us a new way to prevent illegal trafficking of drugs and other contraband," said Hunt. "These improvements will increase the safety and security of everyone."

According to Koort, border control was not an issue until 1991 when Estonia gained its independence from the former Soviet Union. In 2004, Estonia joined the European Union making border control not only important to its citizens, but to all EU countries.

"It is impossible to fight the war on illegal trafficking alone," said Koort. "But because of this successful partnership with the U.S. government, we know we aren't fighting this alone."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16