COLUMBUS, Ga. – As the world has battled the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maryland National Guard focused on domestic operations supporting the state's response to the virus and was unable to work with their state partners from Estonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in over a year. Due to restrictions on travel and other safety guidelines put in place, all in-person State Partnership Program exercises and training with international partners were called off or put on hold.
“By April  all things had stopped in both directions,” explained U.S. Army Maj. Harrison Bittenbender, Maryland National Guard SPP director. “Schools were put on hold, exercises were cancelled, military-to-military events were cancelled, and annual trainings, which is where we would bring over a squad-sized group from both Estonia and the Armed Forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina to embed in our units, were cancelled.”
Now that vaccinations are being administered and the number of positive cases remain manageable, the Maryland National Guard and their partners are beginning to resume planning their security cooperation activities.
During a recent visit to Ft. Benning Army Post, home of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, in Columbus, Ga., the director of the Joint Staff for the MDNG, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Adam Flasch took time to visit members of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina who are attending U.S. military training courses through the National Guard Bureau's SPP initiatives.
AFBiH infantry officer 1st Lt. Lucija Šimović graduated from the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Captains Career Course. In 2017, Šimović attended the Infantry Officer Basic Leadership Course at Ft. Benning and was the first female from either the AFBiH or the Maryland National Guard to do so.
“1st. Lt. Šimović sacrificed a great deal to leave her home and train in one of the most demanding courses for maneuver professionals," said Flasch. "Her efforts are worthy of all our time and praise. Being able to return to the Maneuver Center for Excellence and meet with her and all our AFBiH officers currently training here was an opportunity to continue to invest in our partnership.”
Also during the visit, Flasch also took time to meet with 2nd Lt. Armen Okić and 2nd Lt. Adis Poško, who are attending the Infantry Officer Basic Leadership Course.
Since 2003, the MDNG has had a mutually beneficial partnership with AFBiH and similarly the partnership with Estonia goes back to 1993. As restrictions are loosened due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, the plan is to restart sending soldiers from Estonia and BiH to Maryland and vice-versa to conduct military-to-military events and exercises.
“We are eager to resume our training partnerships with the Maryland National Guard,” said AFBiH Col. Zoran Batarilo, Defense, Military, Naval and Air Attaché for Bosnia and Herzegovina. “When the conditions permit again, we are looking forward to continuing both exercises and SPP activities. The organization of these activities will depend on the future development of the COVID-19 pandemic as it represents a serious health security risk. The health and safety of our citizens remain the top priorities.”
According to Flasch, the return to training is of utmost importance to the readiness of MDNG Soldiers, Airmen and their partners.
“The Maryland National Guard has shown itself to be an agile and capable force for good in our communities throughout this pandemic. But with the size of the mission and impacts to our training platforms, we have lost valuable readiness and need to start considering our next phase as we transition from COVID operations back to training,” explained Flasch. “Our AFBiH partners share that same commitment and continue to send their members to the United States to train, learn, and strengthen their own defense. As we continue to succeed in vaccinating our nation it is essential to re-engage as a nation to support our allies, and work with partners like the Armed Forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Estonia.”
SPP supports the security cooperation objectives of the United States and the Geographic Combatant Commands by developing enduring relationships with partner countries and carrying out activities to build partner capacity, improve interoperability, and enhance U.S. access and influence while increasing the readiness of U.S. and partner forces to meet emerging challenges.