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    Michigan National Guard stands with Latvian state partners, remembers victims of communism

    Michigan National Guardsmen stand with Latvian partners, remember victims of communism

    Photo By 1st Lt. Andrew Layton | White balloons, representing the souls of Latvian officers executed by Soviet forces...... read more read more



    Story by 1st Lt. Andrew Layton 

    110th Wing

    GULBENE, Latvia – On the tracks outside an aging railroad station in northeast Latvia, approximately 150 Latvian citizens – dignitaries, military personnel, and civilians of all ages – stood clutching the strings of white balloons as a band lingered on each note of a military dirge.

    One by one, the balloons floated from their hands as all eyes turned upward. They watched in silence as the specks of white disappeared into the heavens.

    Each balloon represented the soul of a Latvian officer executed near those same railroad tracks 77 years earlier – June 14, 1941.

    Terror had reigned for the next four days (June 14-17, 1941) as the U.S.S.R. staged its first massive deportation in the Baltics. Soviet forces broke into Latvian homes and removed residents – including families, children, and the elderly – shipping them off to far-away places like freight.

    The deportations followed the signing of a non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union on August 23, 1939, which placed Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in the Soviet “sphere of influence.” The Soviet Union officially annexed Latvia in August 1940. In May 1941, an order was issued for the extermination of “active persons” perceived as a threat to the Soviet government.

    Each year, Latvia remembers the victims of Soviet atrocities that followed with twin ceremonies in the villages of Gulbene and Litene, near the sites of some of the most significant mass deportations and executions of the 20th Century.

    “From the railroad station in Gulbene there were over 16,000 people sent out [in those four days],” said Brig. Gen. Ainārs Ozoliņš, commander of Latvia’s National Guard Forces (Zemessardze). “It was the result of a judgement without any fair say – they were put into railroad cars meant for animals and sent out to Siberia.”

    For citizens of Latvia, it is a familiar story – few families escaped the brutal period of Soviet deportations and atrocities (1941-1953) without losing a loved one. But for Michigan National Guardsmen invited by Latvian counterparts to attend the ceremonies, the ritual offered a new opportunity to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their partners, together honoring Latvia’s unique struggle and resilience during some of history’s most painful moments. The Michigan soldiers and airmen represented the 110th Attack Wing, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Mich., Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Mich., and Michigan Joint Force Headquarters, Lansing, Mich. To the best of anyone’s recollection, it was the first time an American delegation had been present for the observances.

    Although Michigan service members collaborate regularly with their Latvian colleagues throughout the year, an especially large Michigan contingent was present for the first two weeks of June, 2018 as they supported exercise Saber Strike, one of Europe’s largest coalition readiness events. 2018 marks the 25th year of the Michigan National Guard’s affiliation with the National Armed Forces of Latvia, and the link between the two partners has never been stronger; on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was present as Latvia named a street on the grounds of Ādaži Military Base (“Michigan Avenue”) in honor of the country’s enduring relationship with Michigan.

    Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, Adjutant General of the Michigan National Guard, said he was moved by the opportunity to participate in the June 14th ceremonies – both at the Gulbene train station, and later that day at a cemetery near the village of Litene. Along with Command Sgt. Maj. Dale Clarmont, Michigan National Guard Senior Enlisted Advisor, Vadnais joined Latvian officials including President Raimonds Vējonis, Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis, and Chief of Defense Lt. Gen. Leonīds Kalniņš, as they laid wreaths at both memorial sites.

    “My take-away is an extreme sense of pride in our Latvian partners and an appreciation for their rich history,” said Vadnais. “We all need to understand – and never forget – the tragedy, the heartache, and the hardship they endured as a people.”

    The events of June 14th, 1941 – and the days that followed – were indeed horrific. As mass deportations of civilians began, so too did the systematic elimination of the Latvian military’s command and control echelon. Near Litene, some 430 Latvian officers were assembled in the custody of Soviet forces. They were either shot, or also deported to Siberia where many died due to extreme conditions.

    “This was a very sharp and painful time in our history, and it personally touched my family,” said Bergmanis, whose mother and grandmother were deported from Latvia to Siberia in 1949. “Those were very emotional times because it cut a lot of families.”

    Bergmanis’s grandfather was a business owner in Latvia when the Soviet occupation began. Like many prosperous Latvians of that era, he was executed by the Soviets, who – in the same way they had eliminated the Latvian military’s officer corps – sought to eradicate the Latvian upper class and intelligentsia, who were most likely to stage a resistance to their occupation. By 1953, approximately 120,000 Latvians had been killed, imprisoned, or deported at the order of the Soviet Union.

    “Russia wanted to break our spirit,” said Bergmanis. “But as many of our Latvian books and poems say, ‘you can break us physically, but you cannot break our spirit.’”

    Bergmanis pointed out that the era of Soviet occupation in Latvia also holds a place in Michigan’s history. Over five thousand Latvian refugees from Soviet brutality found their way to Michigan during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Latvian-American communities flourished in the Michigan cities of Detroit, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Lansing, Grand Haven, and Ann Arbor. Today, a large Latvian-American center still exists in Kalamazoo, as well as a Latvian summer camp at Long Lake (Garezers), near Three Rivers, Mich.

    “We are now 25 years into the military partnership between Michigan and Latvia, but we have another close tie in this page of our history, because so many refugees who left Latvia after the Second World War went to Michigan,” said Bergmanis. “The ties between Latvia and Michigan are much bigger than we often know.”

    Ozoliņš pointed out that for Latvians, it is crucially important to understand and remember the difficult chapters of their national history, especially amidst today’s tense security environment in the Baltics.

    “For 77 years we have been remembering this tragedy, and it is very important to show our new generation, our new cadets, about this history because we cannot repeat this,” said Ozoliņš, “We must continue to speak about it, because if we do not understand our history, we lose a sense of who we are as our own country.”

    For Vadnais, there was also a clear application for soldiers and airmen from Michigan.

    “It really brings things home when you start to think about the fact that there are people still alive today who remember the atrocities that occurred under the Soviet regime – that’s why the Latvians are so determined to defend their independence,” said Vadnais. “So I’d say this to all Americans today: don’t ever take your freedom for granted.”



    Date Taken: 06.15.2018
    Date Posted: 06.15.2018 19:11
    Story ID: 281195
    Location: GULBENE, LV 
    Hometown: ALPENA, MI, US
    Hometown: BATTLE CREEK, MI, US
    Hometown: KALAMAZOO, MI, US
    Hometown: LANSING, MI, US

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