'Brothers in arms'

  • 2000-06-08
  • By Jorgen Johansson
ADAZI - They ran through smoke and gun fire, shouting and shooting, to kill imaginary enemies during their final exam in live-fire exercises, on a vast shooting range outside the Mobile Infantry Training Camp in Adazi. The 22 soldiers, 10 from Lithuania, charged ahead blazing their Kalashnikovs at sand banks. For the last five weeks the soldiers have been trained in conducting safe live-fire exercises on a shooting range and tactical battle exercises.

"This is an exercise where the soldiers are given as much liberty as possible. For a majority of the students, this has been completely new. For the last five weeks, they have had to learn a hell of a lot," Captain Graham Skinner, British Army instructor from the Small Arms School Corps, said.

Wearing a dark green beret and well-polished boots, Skinner explained what was going on during the exercise as grenades simulated enemy artillery over the small groups of soldiers advancing over the plain.

Nick Carter, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy, said UK is a leading country in providing this sort of training in the BALTBAT countries.

"The British government is acutely aware of Latvia's and Lithuania's desire to join NATO," Carter said.

Three smaller explosions made the soldiers react in almost no time. They split up and ran in different directions to cover as much area as possible with their fire. Two men advanced up a ridge and dropped a hand grenade into an enemy bunker, taking it out with a big bang.

"This is part of a bilateral program that the UK has with Latvia. It is a part of a program that has been going on for several years and will continue for several years," Defense Attaché at the British Embassy, Lt. Col. Andrew Tuggey, said.

The exercise ended with taking out the bunker and a short briefing followed. One soldier, too carried away by the commotion, left behind his clip with bullets still in it. Captain Skinner said it was not general practice for Latvian soldiers to leave ammunition behind for the enemy to take.

During the line up that followed, commander of the national armed forces Zemessardze, Col. Raimonds Graube, thanked the soldiers for a great performance. Graube also thanked the UK instructors and officers present.

"I have to say that UK was the first country who provided services to Latvia back in 1992. Today we use British tactics in combat and exercises," said Graube.

The soldiers were looking tired after running in the sand with their equipment. Most of the items worn by the soldiers looked torn and old. Latvian Corp.Viktors Sjakste said one of the most important things for the Latvian Army is to improve the standard of personal equipment, like backpacks, uniforms and boots.

"It was a very good course. I have not done anything like this before. Most of what we learned was based on safety," Sjakste said.

All the soldiers, ranking from corporal to major, held old Soviet-type Kalashnikovs in their hands. There were no NATO weapons in sight.

Lithuanian Lt.Gintaras Greblikas said he did not mind using Soviet weapons during the exercises.

"They are good weapons. I do not think it is necessary to change to NATO weapons yet," Greblikas said.

Sjakste said it makes no difference what weapons he uses, still he thinks NATO weapons are much better.

"It will be good if Latvia joins NATO, because then we will have better protection. We live close to Russia, and we are not too good friends. It will also give better opportunities for higher quality and better training," Sjakste said.

There were no women among the soldiers, still Latvia allows women to go through military service should they wish. Sjakste told a short story of a woman who served as a machine gun loader in his platoon but became pregnant after three months of service.

"I think they could work in HQ or in the kitchen, but not in the professional army or infantry. If you have a section with only men and one woman, then the living conditions will change. Of course women can do anything a man can do, still women are women," Sjakste said.

There was plenty of talk concerning NATO out on the shooting range, not limited to weapons and equipment.

Graube said things of course would be better if Latvia joined NATO.

"I think it will be better for all the Baltic countries if this part of the world is stable," Graube said.

Carter said there were at least two arguments that needed to be considered before Latvia could join NATO.

"There are the arguments that it will agitate Russia or it will encourage stability in this region. I think it will be on the next American president's agenda. The Americans will have to manage these expectations," Carter said.

"We [UK] are of the view that in due course it will be a reality [to see Latvia in NATO], but when that time takes place is a different question."

Still, the Baltic countries are only three of nine countries currently looking into joining NATO. The 19 member countries have to agree if any sort of enlargement will take place and when. The next meeting where these matters may be debated will not take place for at least two years.