LANSING, Mich. - For 50 years, Dace Mason's family dreamed of a free Latvia.

Born in 1950 in a German displaced persons camp, Mason's family brought her and her sister to the U.S. from Latvia to escape the brutal Soviet occupation that threatened their native culture and freedom. Mason's family joined a vibrant community of Latvian-Americans in Michigan, who sought ways to preserve the rich traditions of their homeland until the day they could return in freedom.

In 1993, Dace Mason was working for the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs as executive assistant to Michigan's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. E. Gordon Stump. The Soviet Union had recently crumbled and there were talks at the higher echelons of the National Guard Bureau of a new partnership program to link the National Guard organizations of various states with former Soviet nations for mentoring and security assistance.

Fate had placed Mason in the right moment to witness the very origins of a relationship that would shape the new freedom of her family's long-lost homeland.

"I remember Gen. Taylor [Brig. Gen. Robert Taylor, assistant adjutant general -- Army] saying that they were talking about partnering with a country," said Mason. "I think he actually mispronounced it, and I said, 'Well, is it Latvia?' I really didn't think it could be, but in fact it was. Then, Gen. Stump and I took such an active role in trying to get that country for us -- for Michigan."

The State Partnership Program (SPP) became an official collaboration between the U.S. National Guard Bureau, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. State Department. The Michigan-Latvia partnership was one of the first three bilateral relationships -- along with Pennsylvania/Lithuania and Maryland/Estonia -- to be formalized on April 27, 1993.

Twenty-five years later, the impact of the SPP on the development and capability of both the Michigan National Guard and Latvia's National Armed Forces is almost incalculable. After beginning at the most rudimentary level of preparedness, Latvia's military now represents a fully fledged NATO member state. Soldiers from Michigan and Latvia deployed -- and died -- together in Afghanistan during a groundbreaking Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) initiative, and the two countries have together built world-class Joint Tactical Air Control (JTAC) and Joint Forward Observer (JFO) programs, as well as cutting-edge niche capability in cyber defense.

These achievements, and others, were celebrated during a unique transatlantic ceremony held on April 27, 2018 in Lansing, Mich. and Riga, Latvia. The hosts were Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard, and Lt. Gen. Leonids Kalni��, commander of Latvia's National Armed Forces.

Through a video teleconference, both generals offered remarks that paid tribute to the long-term relationships forged between the people of their respective organizations.

"We are happy to celebrate the great pride that we take in our 25 years of rich history, partnership, and friendship," said Vadnais. "I want to say thank you to all the Soldiers and Airmen who have served side-by-side with our Latvian partners; you are great partners, and great friends."

About 75 guests attended the event in Riga, including Latvia's Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis, U.S. ambassador to Latvia Nancy Pettit, and Maj. Gen. Leonard Isabelle, commander of the Michigan Air National Guard. Col. (ret.) Juris Dalbi��, commander of National Armed Forces from 1994-1998 and Col. (ret.) Juris Eihmanis, former chief of staff of the Latvian National Guard, were also in attendance. Vadnais was joined in Lansing by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Thomas Cutler, adjutant general of Michigan from 2003-2011, Maj. Gen. Michael Stone, commander, 46th Military Police Command, Brig. Gen. Ainars Ozoli��, commander of Latvia's National Guard forces (Zemessardze) and approximately 30 other key individuals, including three representatives from Michigan's Latvian-American population.

In both locations, the program included the presentation of several short videos highlighting key collaborations of the Michigan-Latvia partnership, as well as the unveiling of a bilingual commemorative book.

In Latvia, a moment of silence was held for Sgt. Voldem�rs An�evics and Pfc. Andrejs Merku�evs, Latvian soldiers who were killed on May 1, 2009, while serving alongside Soldiers of the Michigan National Guard.

In one of the videos, Kalni�� spoke with conviction about how the tragedy of their loss strengthened the bond between Michigan and Latvia.

"I am very happy because I have witnessed this time after regaining our independence and developing our military capability. But I am most excited because we have a very good friend in the Michigan National Guard," said Kalni��. "This friendship is tested because we went together in three OMLT operations in Afghanistan and together we lost our soldiers -- it means we are connected by the blood, and this is the most powerful kind of friendship in the world."

Perhaps most significantly, Kalni�� also acknowledged the SPP's role in ensuring Latvia's capability to counter contemporary threats in the Baltic region's challenging security environment. This theme of enhanced capability -- along with other key concepts of interoperability and relationship building -- was echoed by Isabelle as one of the SPP's crowning graces.

"We have three major areas of success with our Latvian partners," said Isabelle. "First and foremost is assisting to maintain the capability of the Latvian military to counter all threats, the second is our cross-cultural interoperability, which is the U.S. military's ability to work with the Latvian military. The final success, of course, is our enduring friendship with our Latvian partners."

He emphasized the fact that the benefits of the SPP are decidedly mutual.

"I can assure you that our Soldiers and Airmen learn a lot from their Latvian partners," said Isabelle. "We have much in common, especially our shared love of democracy."

In addition to helping secure strategic military goals, the SPP has added value to the pursuit of U.S. State Department objectives in Latvia as well. In a written statement, Ambassador Pettit conveyed the longstanding sentiments of unity between Latvia and Michigan that the SPP has helped to foster.

"Let us not forget that determination, sacrifice, and a deep and abiding understanding built on honest friendship is the bedrock of our shared success," said Pettit. "Latvia has always reciprocated the friendship with the United States by actively working to fulfill our shared goals. I believe this friendship is absolutely due in part to the relationships begun under the SPP banner."

In Lansing, Vadnais said that for all of the partnership's successes, he has high hopes for even greater achievements in the future. "I'm looking forward to the next 25 years," he said. "This relationship has set the standard from the very beginning for what a partnership should be."

Seated at the head table with Vadnais, of course, was Dace Mason.

In one of the commemorative videos, Mason shared a moving story from her first visit to Latvia as a translator for Maj. Gen. Stump during the early days of the SPP.

"I remember landing in Latvia and when I got off the plane I had this incredible feeling," said Mason. "It was a revered place; should I kiss the ground? I mean, I never imagined that I would ever see it."

Mason was finally able to meet her cousins in Riga for the first time. As they were touring the heart of the city together, taking in its rich architecture and vibrant history, their elderly guide stopped in his tracks when a particular question was posed.

"Someone mentioned something about us Americans coming in, and then asked how he felt about it," recalls Mason. The man's response has stayed in her heart for the last quarter of a century:

"We've been waiting fifty years for you," he said.

Now, 75 years after occupation, and more than 25 years after independence, Mason takes great pride in observing the development of Latvia's independence, resiliency and readiness.

"It is amazing to have been a part of all this," she said. "I never imagined that [Latvia] would ever be free, but it is -- and it will continue to be."