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In spring of 2018, Lt. Col. Richard Towner accepted an assignment he had never considered before, a career broadening assignment but one he hoped would provide a better work-life balance for him and his family.
“Being in the infantry world and doing the jobs I’ve done in my career, I was always so task-saturated that I sacrificed professional development time and family time, just to handle the overwhelming amount of operational tasks,” he said.
Knowing how rewarding an overseas tour could be, he accepted an assignment to be a military instructor and the senior U.S. national representative at the Baltic Defense College, in Tartu, Estonia.
The college was founded in 1998 by the three sovereign Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – following the restoration of their independence in the early 1990s. It was intentionally located near the prestigious 17th-century University of Tartu, as Tartu was long considered the intellectual center of Estonia.
Towner and his fellow Army colleague, Lt. Col. Aaron Cornett, are the only two U.S. instructors at the defense college. A mere 25 miles due west of Russia, it is considered one of the closest NATO locations to the former Cold War adversary.
Both Army officers, assigned to the Security Assistance Training Management Organization at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, teach graduate-level classes in NATO land operations, leadership, military operations and strategy, at the BDC’s Joint Command and General Staff Course.
The majority of the 60 or so students, mostly majors and lieutenant colonels, are from the three Baltic States that together funded the U.S. instructor positions through a Security Assistance Command managed foreign military sales case that was signed in 2010.
As a NATO course, the JCGSC also has representation from other nations, including soldiers from the U.S., Canada, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Czech Republic, Georgia and Ukraine. Additionally, anywhere between 10 and 12 senior Baltic civilian students – Ministry of Defense level or similar – attend the Command and Staff course for three months every year.
“Being an instructor here is really rewarding as we have students from 14 different nations representing NATO and Partnership for Peace countries,” Towner said. “Most of these students will go on to fulfill a joint operational staff officer billet or become a commander within their own national structures.”
As the only American flag-wearing representatives in that region, Towner and Cornett often find themselves participating in high-level discussions and meetings, or at public events outside their normal duties.
“We are here as ambassadors of the U.S. military to demonstrate U.S. resolve and commitment to our NATO allies and partners,” Cornett said.
The U.S. chargé d’affaires to Estonia, Brian Roraff, echoed that sentiment saying the unwavering commitment from the U.S. to the Baltic States takes many forms, including the U.S. military representation at the Baltic Defense College.
“Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are not just our NATO allies, but our close partners and friends,” he said. “The BDC is an avenue for our soldiers to establish lasting ties, improve interoperability, and exchange best practices at the strategic, operational and policy levels.”
Cornett said he felt their personal interactions with faculty, students and the local population were actually as important as their official duties.
“Duty aside, Richard and I and our families live on the Estonian economy, integrated into the community. We are the only two permanent U.S. military families in a town of about 100,000 where about 20 percent are Russian speakers,” Cornett said. “This is where we can really make a difference. A lot of what people here know about the U.S. comes from media and pop culture. We give them a more personal insight and hopefully change their negative perceptions to more positive ones.”
Lt. Col. Robert Padgett, chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, knows that the investment of sending Army instructors and students to the college is invaluable for international mil-mil relations.
“U.S. support to the Baltic Defense College and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is very important,” Padgett said. “The provision of two U.S. Army lieutenant colonel instructors to the college, through the support of USASAC and SATMO, is vital to a shared understanding of joint military doctrine, NATO interoperability, and the ability to operate and exercise together in all the war-fighting domains.”
Padgett also knew the U.S. instructors and students would personally gain invaluable experience and insight as they deepen their knowledge of how NATO allies and partners operate and train.
As an example, in the fall of 2019 Towner was able to lead a class trip of BDC students and faculty to study and analyze the operational and tactical level aspects of the battle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the “Kurland Pocket” during the closing months of World War II. It was one of the largest and most significant battles in Eastern European history but one not studied in western military history.
“It’s been very eye-opening to understand history further east from here (Estonia) and when you look at the staff ride we just did to Kurzeme (in Liepaja, Latvia), that was the epic battle that ended the war between Russia and Germany,” Towner said. “I was just so astounded that our history books in the west don’t cover it. It’s just amazing to me but in this part of the world, that is their Normandy, their Battle of the Bulge, that’s pretty significant.”
For Towner – a 21-year infantry officer – who is at the end of his tour after being selected for command, accepting this assignment was a good decision as it finally allowed him to balance professional development and career, with his responsibilities to his family.
“This is the first job I’ve had, in literally 10 years, where I can truly say that I have work-life balance,” he said. “I work hard but for the first time I’m actually home most nights for dinner, and I have rediscovered my family, and my family is very healthy from being here.”
When asked what mission success looked like, Cornett had this response as he reflected on his short time left in country after also being selected for command under the new Army talent management system for officers.
“If we can leave this assignment knowing we have prepared the officers of our NATO allies and partners for their future assignments and made a positive impression in doing so, then I think that is success,” he said.