RIGA, Latvia –
When U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Melaney Miller first came to Latvia in 1996 with the Michigan National Guard’s 126th Army Band, she was a twenty-something percussionist looking for adventure.
Latvia, one of three Baltic nations situated on Russia’s western border, had regained its independence after the Soviet Union fell in 1991, ending 50 years of bitter occupation. In 1993, the Michigan National Guard entered a defense cooperation with the National Armed Forces of Latvia under the State Partnership Program (SPP). By 1996, the cooperation was seeing progress toward one of its first major lines of effort: development of the Latvian National Guard.
As the relationship between Michigan and Latvia continued to grow, the 126th Army Band and the Central Military Band of the Latvian National Armed Forces came together in Latvia for a series of joint performances. The two bands would literally merge as one, with American and Latvian musicians working, performing, and traveling side-by-side. The concerts would symbolize this new and exciting partnership.
Miller didn’t know what to expect, but she found a fascination with the culture that was waiting for her.
“We had heard that Latvia’s citizens, having recently regained their independence, may not have extra resources for luxury or comforts. But getting there, we noticed that everyone dressed very well, and we never saw a shred of litter or trash in the streets,” she said. “That signified to us that the Latvian people had a deep pride in their country, their recent liberation, and having their freedom back: there was a quiet happiness that emanated from them.”
One of her new Latvian colleagues, a piano player in the Latvian Central Military Band, invited members of the Michigan National Guard band to the house he and his wife shared in Riga. He also invited American band members to the beach, eager to make his new team members feel at home as they gelled professionally.
“Even though there was something of a language barrier, we were all able to connect with our Latvian partners through enjoying the creative process and making music together,” said Miller. “Until that trip, we never knew relationships like that could exist – we came together in a way no one expected.”
Miller thought her experience in Latvia had been the trip of her lifetime. Until now.
In May 2023, she returned to Latvia with the 126th Army Band for another concert series – this time alongside the Latvian National Guard Orchestra – to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the State Partnership Program. Since 1993, the Michigan-Latvia cooperation has produced a stunning list of mutually beneficial accomplishments, as noted May 2nd by Latvian Defense Minister Ināra Mūrniece during remarks at the tour’s first concert in Riga.
“For years, our Soldiers have been training side-by-side in joint exercises, overcoming conflicts, challenges, developing and improving defense capabilities and participating in international operations,” Mūrniece said. “In today’s complex security environment, there are even more directions for our cooperation. We are working together on the process of introducing Black Hawk helicopters and on the creation and development of the new military range Selija, and these are just a few examples.”
U.S. Ambassador to Latvia, Christopher Robinson, also attended the concert and shared optimism for the partnership’s future.
“The partnership is more than just a security agreement. It is an unbreakable bond of mutual trust between the people of Latvia and Michigan,” Robinson said. “I am confident that this partnership and the broader U.S.-Latvian alliance will endure and thrive for the next 30 years and beyond, because it delivers liberty, prosperity, and security to our peoples.”
In the twenty-seven years since that first joint performance, the bands have reunited in Latvia in 1998, 2001 and – for the first time in Michigan – in 2018. But the 30th anniversary concert series, which also included performances in the Latvian cities of Alūksne and Rēzekne, was different. With Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, there is a renewed sense of urgency, not to just deter threats, but to be able to defeat threats and defend every inch of NATO territory.
For Miller, there were also things this time that were unexpectedly familiar.
Soon after arriving in Riga in for a site visit, she reconnected with the Latvian piano player who had first shared his culture and homeland with her and her teammates twenty-seven years before. He had been performing in other bands and Miller had not seen him since that first trip in 1996.
She learned his name again: Sgt. Austris Universs.
“I looked at this person who was playing the piano and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know him,’ then I thought about it again,” she said. “I figured it had been twenty-seven years – maybe I should rethink this.”
She took a closer look and realized it was him. Fortunately, Miller still had her photo album from the 1996 trip, which she brought back with her for the concert tour.
Universs shared with Miller his disbelief at their reconnection. “[I had offered] some percussionists from the Michigan orchestra to spend some time with me and my family so they could better understand how we do things in Latvia, said Universs. “I never thought someone from your orchestra would remember me after so many years.”
There were several other members, both from the 126th Army Band and the Latvian National Guard Orchestra, who had also been a part of the original concert series in 1996. Throughout the tour, they reminisced over old pictures and times shared. They also made new memories together.
“To make music together again was wonderful,” said Miller.
Miller doesn’t know if she will get the chance to return to Latvia for more performances, but she knows that what she’s been able to experience through the State Partnership Program is a gift she now gets to share with younger members of the 126th Army Band.
“The best part is seeing people falling in love with the country and with the Latvian people the way I got to when I was in my twenties,” she said. “That brings me a joy that I cannot begin to describe.”
It was this accumulation of joy, passion and appreciation that led Miller to take a leap of faith and agree to perform a traditional Latvian song, “Skaista Mana Tevu Zēme” (“Beautiful Land of My Fathers”) during all three of the tour’s performances. Miller doesn’t speak Latvian, but she learned the sound of the words and took time to internalize them, practicing over and over in the days leading up to the tour, with plenty of coaching from her Latvian colleagues.
“It wasn’t until the third concert that I had a full understanding of every word I was singing,” she said. “Only then did I truly appreciate the meaning and what an honor it was to sing them.”
After the performances, Miller says she was approached by many who shared with her the feeling of deep emotion and respect for Latvian culture that it stirred in them.
“It was way out of my comfort zone,” she said. “But, given the impact it made, I feel like it was the least I could do for this partnership.”