By Sgt. 1st Class Jim GreenhillJune 19, 2017
RIGA, Latvia -- The friendship struck between then-U.S. Army Maj. Greg Vadnais and Latvian Army Capt. Raymonds Graube in 1993 strained conventional logic.
Almost 25 years later, the impact of their professional relationship seems just as improbable.
"You're the guy I was training to fight," Vadnais recalls telling Graube in 1993 when the two met at the Michigan National Guard's Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center. Latvian forces were taking part in one of the very first exchanges between the Baltic nation and the Midwestern state.
What made the meeting extraordinary was that Vadnais and Graube had been on opposite sides until just four years earlier, when the Berlin Wall fell and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet bloc ended the 44-year-old Cold War.
Now, as Latvia was rebuilding its democracy and partnerships with the West, Vadnais and Graube became acquaintances and, over time, firm friends through the pairing of Michigan with Latvia through the National Guard's State Partnership Program.
Maj. Vadnais became Maj. Gen. Vadnais, the adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard.
And Capt. Graube?
He became Lt. Gen. Graube, commander of Latvia's National Armed Forces, until his retirement in October 2016.
Meanwhile, the budding National Guard State Partnership Program blossomed from its initial three partnerships on the Baltic coast to 79 nations worldwide. The program was initially endorsed in 1993 by Army Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, U.S. European Command commander as a way to build partnerships with non-NATO countries as they embraced democracy and market economies after the fall of the Soviet Union.
"It's one of the premiere programs not only in the National Guard, but in the Department of Defense," Vadnais said during a visit to Riga last week. "The bang for the buck, the juice you get for the squeeze, is incalculable. It's a great fit -- something we can support and we can sustain."
Vadnais accompanied Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, and other senior National Guard leaders on a visit to Latvia to see National Guard troops taking part in Saber Strike 2017, the latest iteration of a longstanding U.S. Army Europe-led cooperative training exercise involving the U.S., Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and other allied and partner nations.
The senior leaders also joined the European Command's State Partnership Program Conference in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where participants from the command's 22 partnership programs attended.
The enduring relationship between Latvia and Michigan is just one example of pairings between nations and National Guard states that thrive throughout EUCOM.
Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, EUCOM commander and Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Allied Command Operations, has characterized the European area of responsibility as a theater in transition.
EUCOM's renewed emphasis on deterrence and defense is aimed at offsetting Russia, neutralizing violent extremist organizations and destabilizing Iranian influence. The State Partnership Program Conference focused on more fully and broadly integrating the National Guard program into EUCOM's theater strategy.
"Our allies and partners are vital to U.S. national security," Lengyel said. "The long-term, enduring relationships that National Guard State Partnership Program states have fostered with our European allies and partners has been critical in developing the strategic foundation upon which to further develop interoperability and integration. Our challenge now is to innovate the next phase of the program in Europe in light of the evolving strategic environment."
"Based on the discussions I saw taking place in Garmisch, I am more than confident we will collectively rise to the challenge," he concluded
Long-term relationships are the secret to the program's successful contributions to combatant commands' security cooperation strategies.
Whereas most military assignments are limited to two to three years, National Guard officers and noncommissioned officers in the program interact with their foreign counterparts, in some cases, for decades -- as was the case with Vadnais and Graube.
"Raimonds and I kind of grew up together," Vadnais said. "It's the personal relationships as well as the professional relationships that allow you to have the frank and honest conversations so we're not wasting time and, more importantly, resources. That's foundational to trust. You can't surge trust."
More than two decades since that first meeting, Vadnais is recognized on the streets of Riga like a celebrity, the personification of Latvia's partnership with the United States -- a relationship that has seen Latvia transition from security consumer to security provider. Michigan Guard combat forces have also co-deployed with Latvian soldiers to Afghanistan three times. Three Latvian soldiers -- Edgars Ozolins, Voldemars Ansevics and Andrejs Merkusevs -- died fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Michigan's Minutemen.
Latvia's President Raimonds Vejonis has dined at Vadnais' Michigan home, and the adjutant general escorted Gen. Lengyel for a meeting at the Latvian president's residence during this week's visit. The two also met with U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Nancy Pettit, Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis, Chief of Defense Maj. Gen. Leonids Kalnins, and other senior leaders.
Like the adjutants general who lead the National Guard's other State Partnership Programs, Vadnais said his state's relationship with Latvia has been a win for Michigan's Guard.
"You get myopic in your view of the world if you never leave your home," he said. "The state partnership program really contributes to the overall readiness of our Army and our Air Force."
It's a two-way relationship that has helped Michigan improve its mission to secure the American homeland. For example, Vadnais said his state's cyber presence has been strengthened because Latvia is a world leader in cyber security, in part because the Baltic states have been frequently targeted by cyberattacks.
"They have some tactics, techniques and procedures we've adopted," Vadnais said.
"I love the State Partnership Program and what it does," Lengyel add. "Our foreign partners repeatedly tell me how grateful they are for all they gain from their program relationships. They are more proficient than they were in 1991 -- and so is the National Guard."
"There is no doubt our State Partnership Program experience is one of the factors that has contributed to our growth," he continued. "In turn, it better enables us to execute our missions fighting America's wars, securing the homeland and building partnerships while enhancing our contribution to the Joint Force."