Md. Guard helping to rebuild Estonia

October 19, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

While Maryland National Guard units have had high-profile assignments in the Persian Gulf war, Liberia, Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia, a small group of its members have been quietly -- almost secretly -- working to help rebuild the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia.

"When you have a nation so long subjugated, you don't have any expertise," said Maj. Gen James F. Fretterd, Maryland's adjutant general.

Maryland Guard units, along with those from other states, and a variety of European nations have been advising Estonians on matters as far-ranging as setting up border patrols, dealing with nuclear power plant accidents and fighting elements of organized crime.

When Estonia and its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, declared independence in 1991, they looked to Western democracies for help in rebuilding democratic institutions which existed only between the two world wars.

Then the Soviet empire itself collapsed, leaving its former republics with no independent resources for reconstruction.

Moving to fill the void, the U.S. departments of State and Defense created a partnership program between the military in the Baltic nations and the National Guard in 14 states in 1993.

For more than a year, the program operated in near-secrecy to avoid conflicts with the remnants of the Russian occupation governments.

"It has been low-key, but now that the Russians are gone, this program is moving ahead. The Estonians have to develop a whole new generation of leaders," General Fretterd said.

General Fretterd said he volunteered Maryland to help Estonia because the state has a large Estonian community. One prominent member is Estonian-born Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services.

"The Russians left nothing in the way of trained personnel," said Ms. Saar.

Other Maryland agencies have also been involved.

With the Estonian seaport capital of Tallinn as their base, Maryland Guard members have traveled the country periodically since last October in four and five-member teams.

They respond to Estonian requests with specialist teams from the United States, and they bring Estonians here to learn about the military, police, border patrols, emergency response and medical systems, as well as political institutions.

The National Guard was selected instead of regular military units because it's made up of "citizen soldiers" who are community-oriented and offer a broader range of experience and expertise, said Lt. Col. James Adkins of Kent Narrows, who heads the Maryland National Guard's Estonian project.

"The key point is that we don't want to Americanize them -- we show them and let them do what they want to do," Colonel Adkins said.

The Communist system stifled initiative and used the military to oppress the people -- not to assist them -- so the Marylanders explain the American constitutional system of civilian control of the military, he added.

In 50 years, the Soviets "damaged or destroyed every essential sphere of a democratic human society, also the economy," said Fred Ise, former president of the Baltimore Estonian Society.

"The [Estonian] leadership is coming from young people, but still they grew up under Soviet domination. Estonians have to learn ** how to develop leaders in a democracy."

The requests the Guard deals with are varied. For example, Colonel Adkins said, accidental shootings occurred on military firing ranges because the Russians never taught range safety. Three or four firing exercises would be held simultaneously on a large field with no safety precautions, he said. So an American a weapons-safety team was dispatched.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer also allowed the Guard to borrow people from other state agencies, including the state police, Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Department of the Environment and Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

This last agency's nuclear preparedness training was vital because there are several nuclear reactors in the Baltic states similar to the one that melted down at Chernobyl, Ukraine. The Estonians had no nuclear emergency training, Colonel Adkins said.

Ms. Saar, the juvenile services secretary who left Estonia at age 10, said the country also needs help dealing with the dark side of a new free-market economy.

"There are eight or more Mafia-type organizations that are coming in from the outside, from Turkey, from Russia, operating like the Black Hand did here -- with extortion and protection rackets and killing," she said.

"Unless they build strong police and border guard forces, the gangsters will overwhelm the economic progress."

With the Baltic states becoming major routes for drug shipments, the country's military and police need help dealing with those issues, Colonel Adkins said.

Master Sgt. Ken Griffin, 49, of Catonsville, coordinates the sending of American specialists to Estonia and Estonian visits to the United States. About 30 Marylanders have gone to Estonia, and about 70 Estonians have come to Maryland, he said.

A dozen Estonian junior officers left Baltimore yesterday after undergoing training on staff organization and responsibility at the company level, said Sergeant Griffin.

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