MD National Guard will deploy to Europe in May

By Ryan White, CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

REISTERSTOWN, MD — The Maryland National Guard hosted two military generals from Estonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Camp Fretterd Army Reserve during a multi-day visit this week.

The visit underscored an ongoing military partnership between the state and the two European nations that has taken on added importance since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last month. Later this spring, soldiers from the Maryland National Guard will participate in exercises in Europe with their counterparts.

The National State Partnership Program, established in 1993, pairs state National Guardsmen with U.S. allies to foster military and civilian development and cooperation.

Lieutenant General Senad Mašović, Chief of Defense of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Brig. General Riho Ühtegi, commander of the Estonian Defense League, and their staffs were briefed on the capabilities of the Maryland National Guard, spoke with Pentagon officials, and sat down with representatives of the Department of Defense Management. Maryland ER.

“We are not partners,” Mašović told Capital News Service. “We are brothers.”

“Today it is actually important to increase the capacity of partners abroad to prevent any negative influence from our adversaries,” Mašović added. “I am talking about the negative influence of Russia and China, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in our region, in Europe, and against democracy.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States developed the State Partnership Program to show former Warsaw Pact nations and newly independent states the benefits of partnership with Western countries.

“The National Guard was a natural partner because we had the advantage of staying in one state and therefore being able to sustain that relationship for life,” said Army Maj. Harrison Bittenbender, program director.

Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Two years later, the country became associated with the Maryland National Guard.

“In the beginning, of course, we needed a lot of help. Estonia was a new state,” Ühtegi said. “We wanted to build a Western-style army.”

Estonia joined NATO in 2004. To become a NATO member, a country must work towards military compatibility – meaning the country uses equipment and doctrine that is interoperable with other NATO members – a task in which the Maryland Guard participated.
Ühtegi, a former Estonian special forces commander who spoke with US Army special forces personnel at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, earlier during his visit, said his first trip to the foreigner as an officer was an event of the state partnership program 28 years ago.

“So at that time (the program) was just kind of a help,” he said. “But over time it became more and more a cooperation.”

The Maryland-Estonia partnership will be 30 years old next year. Estonia shares a 183-mile long border with Russia, which after invading Ukraine issued threats against the Baltic and Nordic states.

“We are next to Russia,” Ühtegi said. “It makes us even more focused to resist a threat on our borders.”

In a typical year, Maryland’s Guard Partnership Program holds 30 to 40 exercises in which a handful of personnel are sent from country to country for training. But the COVID pandemic forced a hiatus from those activities for more than a year.

The program resumed in June last year, several months after Bittenbender assumed the role of program director.

“I was responsible for bilateral affairs from 2016 to 2019 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was amazing work,” he said. “When the directing job…became available, that was the only job in the state that I was like, ‘yeah, I’m willing to drive from Virginia to come and do this job. “”

In May, the Maryland National Guard deploys a large contingent of personnel for the annual Defender Europe military exercise, where they will train with forces from their partner nations.

The exercise, scheduled for May 16-27, will include the movement of a U.S. division-sized force (typically between 10,000 and 15,000 troops) with equipment to demonstrate the rapid deployment of combat-ready troops, according to NATO. The locations for the exercises will be Albania, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

“It’s important for SPP, because we train with our partner,” said Bittenbender. “Whenever we can work with the Estonians or the Bosnians, it’s a plus.”

The Maryland-Bosnia partnership was established in 2003.

Mašović said his visit with National Guard and Pentagon officials was fruitful. He said he views the Maryland Guard as a credible partner who, through continued cooperation, has created a strong level of trust.

A reception ceremony was held at Camp Fretterd on Thursday evening and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan was in attendance.

“In recent weeks, we have again been reminded of exactly why strong ties and alliances like this are so essential,” Hogan said. “We have worked closely together for all these years – conducting training exercises and building an enduring partnership – to be ready to help ensure stability and democracy in these uncertain and dangerous times.”

This article originally appeared on the Owings Mills-Reisterstown patch