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NEWS | March 29, 2022

Common Goals Strengthen Trilateral Relationship Between MING, Latvia and Liberia

By Capt. Joe Legros Michigan National Guard

Situated 700 miles south of Africa’s Sahara Desert and 435 miles north of the equator, Monrovia, Liberia rarely dips below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a sub-Saharan beachside paradise teaming with lush green fauna and palm trees.

Ties to the U.S. are deep and unmistakable. Liberia was the first African country to declare independence, led by the American Colonization Society in the early to mid-1800s. It’s capital, Monrovia, was named after James Monroe, founding father and fifth president of the U.S. Even the Liberian national flag resembles the American flag, the original design stitched together by liberated black slaves all born in the U.S.

“The connection to the U.S. is strong. Ten of the first twelve Liberian presidents were born in the United States,” added Michael McCarthy, U.S. Ambassador to Liberia.

In November 2009, the ties grew stronger as the Michigan National Guard (MING) began work under the State Partnership Program (SPP) with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) marking the second nation MING partnered with (the first being the Latvian National Armed Forces (LNAF) in 1993). Through this new partnership MING assisted the country with their medical response to infectious disease, engineering support and exchange of military best practices.

The SPP is unique in that it links a state's National Guard with the military forces of a partner country in a mutually beneficial military relationship. As a result, Michigan has hosted a variety of Latvian and Liberian servicemembers, from generals to infantrymen, at key leader engagements (KLEs) as well as live fire exercises during training events such as Northern Strike, held annually at the National All-Domain Warfighting Center (NADWC) in Northern Michigan.

Until recently, the partnership was mostly MING/Latvia and MING/Liberia. However, military leadership from all three entities met last year in Michigan to discuss the benefits of increasing interoperability and mutual support between Liberia and Latvia as well. The three SPP partners conducted a KLE in Monrovia, Liberia, Feb. 4-13, 2022, to further strengthen the relationship.

“It just makes sense,” said U.S. Army Capt. Rob Mason, MING’s Security Cooperation Division desk officer for U.S. European Command (EUCOM). “Latvia and MING have learned so much from each other over our nearly 30-year partnership, and this is a great opportunity to gain new understanding through reciprocal exchanges with our AFL counterparts.”

U.S. Army Maj. Catalin Bugan, MING’s bilateral affairs officer to U.S. European Command (EUCOM) in Latvia, echoed the same sentiment.

“Latvia’s military is well respected in NATO and they’ve served side by side with MING Soldiers in Afghanistan on multiple occasions. Additionally, the country plans to host a large, multinational military exercise in Europe in the coming months,” said Bugan. “There’s no reason why Latvia and Liberia can’t share their unique experience and expertise with one another, especially as Liberia stands up its multinational non-commissioned officer academy.”

In fact, both Latvian and Liberian military personnel frequently travel to other countries, exchanging best practices with regional partners and NATO allies, including the U.S., in order to build military expertise and conduct peacekeeping missions.

MING’s state operations officer (J3), U.S. Army Col. Ravi Wagh, attended the U.S. Army War College together with AFL military leadership. He also commands the Indiana National Guard’s 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), which assists and advises foreign militaries. His visit to Monrovia this past February is just the latest in a long line of SPP engagements dating back to 2014.

For Wagh, his focus the last several years has been to increase the readiness of the Latvian and Liberian militaries.

“Sharing of military expertise and resources between partner countries is not a new concept,” said Wagh. “However, the fact that Michigan is playing a prominent role in facilitating this exchange between Latvia and Liberia is very exciting. It demonstrates the exceptional capabilities and leadership of our state’s National Guard.”

The trilateral relationship has grown over time, leading up to this most recent KLE in Monrovia.

MING sent traveling contact teams (TCTs) to Liberia and Latvia numerous times to strengthen relationships, offer medical and engineering support, as well as further develop the military specialties of all servicemembers involved.

“In the past year, we coordinated visits to Liberia from MING engineer units such as the 107th Engineer Battalion as well as medical support from the 110th Wing, 127th Wing and the 126th Infantry Regiment,” said MING’s bilateral affairs officer to U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) in Liberia, Maj. Jason Everts. “The 107th assisted with various projects to include perimeter reinforcement and emplacement of concertina wire around key facilities.”

MING medical teams assisted in multiple areas, including the grand opening of 14 Military Hospital in Monrovia in Sept. 2021. The hospital not only serves military personnel and their families, but civilians as well. It offers everything from medical triage to neonatal care.

“Michigan has been a tremendous partner for us,” said AFL’s Maj. Joseph Kowo, commander of 14 Military Hospital. “They helped us make this the very first military hospital in the country’s history.”

Kowo indicated the hospital had a lower COVID death rate than others throughout the country, primarily because of military training and assistance from MING during a recent Ebola outbreak.

“We established best practices from past outbreaks and were better prepared,” Kowo said.

The AFL’s motto is “A Force for Good.” Their success with the hospital says something about the determination of Liberia’s military to make a positive difference in the country.

“Reports from the United Nations and other partners all speak to the hard work and professionalism of the AFL,” added Wagh.

Additionally, the three partners share a common goal in strengthening their numbers while increasing diversity. MING’s adjutant general U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers saw this firsthand while touring 14 Military Hospital.

“This is a very progressive hospital and military force,” said Rogers.

"Many females currently serve on staff at the hospital, including Liberian-born Dr. Zoe Parwan, the chief medical officer for the facility. Additionally, female AFL Soldiers or spouses of current servicemembers serve in prominent roles ranging from neo-natal care to medical triage."

“AFL leadership shared some of their recruitment goals with me,” added Rogers. “They want to increase their numbers by 300 new Soldiers, half of which will be women recruits.”

This falls in line with recent efforts by MING to make their military more female-friendly. Initiatives such as updating every armory in the state, building lactation rooms and providing additional space for female showers and lockers, demonstrate Michigan’s mutual commitment to ensuring its force is representative of the population it serves.

“A logical result in the trilateral relationship is for LNAF and AFL to conduct joint exercises,” said Rogers. “All three SPP partners are here in Liberia to discuss the next steps to make that a reality. It’s truly a momentous and mutually beneficial endeavor.”

Liberian Maj. Gen. Prince C. Johnson, III, AFL’s chief of staff, provided some insight during the engagement into how far the AFL has come in recent years.

“We went from the seventh-worst organization in the country during the civil war era to one of the best, most well-respected militaries in the region,” said Johnson. “MING played a large role in developing our capabilities. We look forward to what comes next.”

Johnson also mentioned the AFL has gone from simply observing exercises like Northern Strike to actually training on the same tactics and supporting other militaries in the region.

“We have expanded into three other partner countries. We even have an operational presence in Mali, our northern neighbor.” Johnson said.

Also in attendance at the Feb. KLE was LNAF Brig. Gen. Imants Ziedins, deputy chief of defense for Latvia. He shared how his forces also operate in Mali, together with Liberia and multiple other nations.

“We look forward to further expanding this partnership,” Ziedins said. “We could all benefit from training in multiple operational environments.”

The culminating event of the KLE was the celebration of the 65th annual Armed Forces Day in Liberia. All three nations watched as the entire AFL conducted a pass in review on Feb. 11, with Liberian President George Weah inspecting each unit as they marched in front of a large crowd of spectators.

Weah addressed those in attendance, specifically thanking foreign partners such as MING and LNAF for celebrating together with Liberia.

Earlier in the week, as Weah met with Rogers, he reiterated, “We have enjoyed our military relationship with Michigan. We are happy and proud of this partnership and we look forward to expanding it with Latvia for the betterment of all involved.”