Maryland National Guard celebrates foreign partnerships

For Capt. Martin Noorsalu, deploying to Afghanistan with the Maryland National Guard last year was an unusual opportunity.

Noorsalu is one of only a dozen helicopter pilots in the Estonian Air Force. The sole air defense service of the former Soviet republic numbers some 400 personnel. They fly four helicopters.


But from September to December, Noorsalu and fellow Estonian Air Force Capt. Rene Kallis flew medical evacuation missions in Afghanistan with Maryland National Guard members in the 1st General Support Aviation Battalion of the 169th Aviation Regiment.

"We are a small country," Noorsalu said. "We never could afford to send out a unit to the theater.


"That kind of cooperation gives us battlefield experience. Now we can take the best of that knowledge and use it to build up our forces."

That's one idea behind the Maryland Guard's partnerships with Estonia and the Balkan state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Noorsalu and Kallis joined Gov. Martin O'Malley, the ambassadors of their countries and military leaders of all sides in Annapolis on Monday to celebrate anniversaries of those partnerships.

Fifty-four state and territorial Guards maintain such partnerships with 65 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Partners train together, travel back and forth and hold exchanges to expose members to each other's militaries and countries.

Maryland's partnership with Estonia was one of the first. Maj. Gen. James Adkins, now the commander of the Maryland Guard, helped to initiate the relationship 20 years ago, as the Baltic nation of 1.2 million was re-establishing its own armed forces after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"Anywhere we go as a nation around the world, we have to have coalitions," Adkins said. "What we are doing is forming those enduring partnerships."

Mikk Marran, Estonia's permanent secretary of defense, credited Maryland with helping to prepare his country for NATO membership.

"In the beginning, the focus was mostly on the basic military training, and the assistance was just a one-way street from Maryland to Estonia," he said. "Today, the benefits are mutual, as we are cooperating in cyberdefense, special operations, helicopter pilot training and other sophisticated fields."

Adkins said the "great thing for Maryland" is "we have a mature partnership where we've got Estonian pilots ... for three years flying Maryland National Guard aircraft here and in Afghanistan — saving American lives, by the way, rescuing wounded soldiers on the battlefield."


The partnership with Bosnia-Herzegovina is more recent. It started 10 years ago, as the Baltic nation of 3.8 million was rebuilding after years of war.

At the time, it had two distinct militaries, led by separate ministries of defense — which were "more of a threat to each other and to security in Bosnia and Herzegovina than a contribution to its stability and prosperity," Defense Minister Zekerijah Osmic said, and which "demanded a strong presence of international forces as a guarantee of peace."

Now 26 Bosnians are serving with the 115th Military Police Battalion of the Maryland National Guard in Afghanistan.

"From a beneficiary country of peace support operations," Osmic said, "we've become a country that exports peace on equal terms with other partners."

Gen. Frank J. Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, called the relationship between Maryland and Bosnia-Herzegovina a "classic partnership."

"We took a country out of war, we worked with them, they worked with us," he said, to go "from a consumer of security to a producer of security."