The first wave of Airmen from the Latvian Air Force have completed an 8-month familiarization program working with air traffic controllers at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.
The three Latvians — Cpl. Euija Polakova , Cpl. Aivers Freibergs and Pvt. Karl Grundins - worked alongside their Michigan counterparts at Selfridge as part of a new aspect of a long-standing partnership between the state and the European nation. Michigan and Latvia have been aligned in the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership for Peace program for more than 20 years. The partnership has long included Americans and Latvians working together on many projects in both Latvia and Michigan. Latvian troops have also deployed to Afghanistan in the past, serving as American allies there.
In this latest evolution of the partnership, American and Latvian air traffic controllers worked together at Selfridge to the benefit of both parties.
“The working partnership we experienced was the biggest challenge in our lives, Polakova said. “It was a great experience and we studied very hard to achieve all that we have.”
The Latvian Airmen began the program by spending seven weeks at the U.S. Defense Language Institute in Texas to polish their English-speaking skills. (Many Latvian citizens grow up with a working fluency in English). The Latvian troops then spent three months at the Air Force’s air traffic control technical school in Mississippi before arriving in Michigan.
At Selfridge, the Latvians were assigned to an American partner ATC controller and worked in both the Selfridge tower and radar approach control room, according to Steve Oliver, manager of air traffic control for the 127th Operations Group at Selfridge.
“It has been a very rewarding for all sides, Oliver said.
Oliver said that over the course of the 8-month partnership at Selfridge, the Latvian Airmen have had the opportunity to experience the full gamut of operations at the base.
“My experience here has been pretty interesting. Each day is different,” said Freibergs, one of the Latvian troops. “I have learned something new each day.”
Michelle Smith, a controller at Selfridge, served as a partner for the Latvians during the partnership.
“The Latvians work ethic was amazing and it was an honor to work with them,” she said.
After the Latvians return to their home country, they are scheduled to undergo a series of training programs there and eventually become certified as controller by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Over the next two years, a total of 12 Latvians are expected to participate in the partnership at Selfridge.
“We look forward to the next group arriving in a couple of months,” Oliver said. “We enjoyed working with our first group and look forward to more of the same with the next cohort.”
Under the State Partnership Program, the National Guard in every state works with at least one partner nation, building up goodwill and capability between the partners. Michigan and Latvia became partners in the programs first year, 1993. In 2009, Michigan also established a partnership with Liberia.
Perhaps the Latvian-Michigan partnership’s largest single event is the annual Saber Strike exercise which takes place in the Baltic region of Europe every summer. Some 300 members of the Michigan Air National Guard, along with A-10 Thunderbolt II and KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft, are participating in Saber Strike 2016 in June. In Liberia, a small contingent of Michigan Army National Guard Soldiers spend a year in that African nation, working on a variety of partnership efforts.