PODGORICA, Montenegro, (American Forces Press Service, Dec. 14, 2006) - The ripples from the first muster of Dec. 13, 1636, have reached the shores of the Adriatic Sea, where the world's youngest country joined America's oldest military service in the National Guard's State Partnership Program on Dec. 7."This is an historic first step initiating a strong bilateral defense relationship between the United States and Montenegro," Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said here at the formal announcement of the partnership in the nation's capital."I want to express my gratitude to the United States of America for its support," Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic said during a meeting with Blum. "I'm very glad about the cooperation between the state of Maine and the state of Montenegro. It will further strengthen the cooperation as a whole between Montenegro and the USA.""This is the first, very historic step on establishing mutual partnership relations in terms of defense between the United States and Montenegro," said Lt. Col. Gen. Jovan Lakcevic, Montenegro's chief of defense. "As the states of Montenegro and Maine are very similar when it comes to their landscapes, the same goes for the National Guard of Maine and the Montenegrin military. We look alike. We have many similar army units. We have a lot of potential for military cooperation."The State Partnership Program pairs 55 countries with the National Guard in U.S. states and territories.Other Balkan countries also are members of the SPP, and Blum said during his Montenegrin visit that he hopes a Balkan SPP Regional Workshop, tentatively scheduled for May, will bring together these nation and their National Guard state partners."The State Partnership Program has acted as a catalyst for stability in regions where stability has been sought for centuries and was never achieved and now is possible," Blum said.Blum, Maj. Gen. John W. Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, and other National Guard officials visited Montenegro during the first week of December to recognize the country's SPP membership."I'm struck by the similarities between Maine and Montenegro -- its culture, its people, certainly the geography and the economy," Libby said.Montenegro was independent until 1918 when it was united with Serbia. It became a constituent republic of Yugoslavia in 1945. After that nation's collapse in 1992, 12 years after the death of Josip Broz Tito, the dictator whose iron rule kept the nation together, Montenegro partnered with Serbia.The former Yugoslavia weathered a disastrous civil war through the 1990s. Montenegro managed to avoid the worst of the conflict though the country endured strategic NATO air strikes because of its Serbian union.On May 21, more than 86 percent of the electorate turned out for a referendum, and more than 55 percent embraced independence from the union with Serbia. The country declared independence June 3."The leadership of Montenegro is incredibly of one mind," Blum said. "They truly want to be part of the Euro-Atlantic community. They absolutely are desirous of being members of NATO, and they see the State Partnership Program being what they consider a fast-track for that."Montenegro's SPP membership and the visit by Blum and Libby dominated evening news broadcasts and newspaper front pages in the country.Among other initiatives, the SPP offers:-- Transformation. The Maine National Guard will advise the Montegrin military as it transitions from a conscripted to an all-volunteer force, reduces its numbers and updates 30-year-old equipment.-- Officer development. Members of the Montenegrin military may attend officer candidate school in Maine.-- Noncommissioned officer development. Maine's NCOs may get opportunities to teach in Montenegro, which is looking to develop an NCO academy.-- Language. The SPP will help Montenegrin officers and enlisted soldiers develop English language skills.-- Emergency management. Montenegro may work with the Maine National Guard and emergency managers to enhance emergency response for civil emergencies and search-and-rescue operations. Montenegro is vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. Maine will model the National Guard's relationship with civilian law enforcement agencies for Montenegro, which is developing similar relationships from scratch.-- Coastal defense. Maine may assist Montenegro in enhancing its coastal defenses.-- Civilian-to-civilian partnerships. Student exchanges are among possible civilian programs."Our force structure in Maine parallels almost identically the force structure here in Montenegro, and will make the military-to-military piece very easy for us," Libby said."We're very similar states in many respects, and both of us have significant coastlines, significant industries and a wide spectrum of possible cooperation and partnership," Libby told Montenegro's Vijesti newspaper.In one of numerous stories, the newspaper outlined the National Guard's history, calling it a critical part of America's armed forces, and compared the National Guard to the national civil defense system once used by Yugoslavia.Affiliating with the SPP is one of a series of steps the fledgling government has taken to strengthen the partnership between Montenegro and both the United States and the European Union after 16 years of isolation. Other steps include joining the Partnership for Peace, a program designed to help NATO aspirants ramp up for full membership. Montenegro also became the 192nd member of the United Nations on June 28 and is seen as a promising candidate for European Union membership."My presence here today is ... a clear manifestation of U.S. support for Montenegrin efforts towards integration with the Euro-Atlantic community," Blum said.Potential benefits from the State Partnership Program go beyond specific programs to improved cultural understanding. "We understand clearly in the National Guard that we're subordinate to civilian authorities and that we support civilian authorities," Libby said. "That's a notion that will serve these people and this nation particularly well."During the visit to formalize Montenegro's SPP membership, Blum and Libby met with senior civilian and military Montenegrin officials. They observed special operations forces and special anti-terrorists unit demonstrations. They also toured many cultural sites."I was particularly impressed by the warmth of the people (and) by the enthusiasm that these people show for their newfound freedom," he said.He added that the National Guard represents America. "Ours is a nation of compassion, a nation that sets about to set other men and women free. We see an opportunity in this country to provide them a road ahead in terms of their economy, in terms of their military and civilian relationships," he said. "The men and women of the Maine National Guard look forward to this opportunity."