AMARI AIR BASE, Estonia -- Lessons learned in the foothills of Colorado are taking flight in the Baltic Sea nation of Estonia.
“I’m not a dreamer who thinks that Estonia will have a big strike air force. That is not something that 1.3 million taxpayers can sustain,“ said Lt. Col. Jaak Tarien, chief of staff of the Estonian air force and a 1998 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. “But we are in NATO for a reason and we are a true partner in NATO.“
Tarien made the comments in an interview with a U.S. Air Force public affairs specialist as about 150 U.S. airmen were staying and operating at his country’s Amari Air Base, an air readiness center that had its first test as a fully-operational tactical air base during the exercise in June.
Asked what he learned at USAFA that has been most helpful to him in his military career, Tarien does not pause: “I learned that we have good allies.“
As the chief of staff of the Estonian air force, Tarien is the second in command of the 300-person force. The word around Estonia is that he is in line to become the commanding general of the Air Force later this summer. Not bad for a former law student who learned about opportunities for exchange students at the U.S. service academies by seeing an ad in a newspaper in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia.
Each of the U.S. service academies allow a small handful of students from allied nations to attend the academy on an exchange program each year. The exchanges promote partnerships and build alliances between the U.S. and various nations around the world. The year Tarien entered the Air Force Academy, 1994, was the first year that Estonia was invited to submit a candidate to compete for a spot at the prestigious institution.
“There I was in Colorado. And my English was, um,“ he shrugs and pauses, “so and so,“ he says with a smile.
“The first days I was there, many of my classmates were under a lot of stress with the yelling and the push-ups. Perhaps being away from home for the first time. I felt like I was in a movie. I was constantly excited. The first three months or so I was at the Academy, I could not believe that I was actually living that life, it seemed just like an exciting movie," said Tarien, who spent two years as a Black Panther in Cadet Squadron 29 and then was in the Dirty Dozen of Cadet Squadron 12.
After graduating from USAFA, Tarien returned home to Estonia and was assigned to a major’s billet, working in air surveillance. At the time, there were only 90 people in the entire Air Force and the country was only a half dozen years removed from being part of the Soviet Union. Estonia gained independence in 1991.
Since then, Tarien has worked in several positions as his country’s military has grown. Joining NATO in 2004 was a key moment, he said.
“No one wants a war with NATO. We do not anticipate a war. We are concerned, however, about a strategic miscalculation by some country,“ Tarien said. “We work closely with NATO and want no one to make a doubt that we are a partner with NATO, in case there is a strategic miscalculation.“
Tarien said Estonia’s goal is to continue to work actively with Latvia and Lithuania in an air surveillance partnership and to be able to provide an air field and the logistical support that can allow other NATO partner countries to project air power from Estonia, if such a contingency is needed.
“That is the power of the NATO partnership,“ Tarien said. “Many allies working together.“
That’s a lesson Tarien first learned in Colorado Springs in the 1990s. “There I learned that the American military is people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in, to stand up for what is right.“
Tarien says he learned that in Colorado Springs – along with a lot of chemistry and math and history.
“It was a well-rounded education that we did not always appreciate as cadets, that we made many comments about it,“ he said. “But all of it has helped me to understand the world, to see the big picture, to gain understanding, to be a better officer in my Air Force.“
This work, USAF Academy grad helps lead Estonia air force, by TSgt Daniel Heaton, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.