“To an ally and friend, from my country and family to yours”

By Joe Margevicius

I had been told to arrive early to the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense because I would need to go through a security screening, and so I did. Upon arriving I called my contact and bided my time in the lobby, receiving strange glances from personnel passing by. My contact arrived and immediately approached with a smile and outstretched hand – a promising sign. We exchanged pleasantries but then wasted no time getting me through the security screening, for there were others awaiting my arrival.

A Miami student enrolled into the Russian language program at Tallinn University, I came to Vilnius, Lithuania, to meet with my contact.  After a long trip and two hours of sleep I arrived with the idea that I would meet my contact, be given the standard tour, and then raid a giftshop and take some photos.  But with a guest security pass strung around my neck, I was guided swiftly through the Defense Ministry’s corridors to an upstairs office area. Upon entering I was greeted by a military officer who sat me down in front of a wall of screens and asked if I was ready. My initial response was one of confusion and all I could muster was a quiet “For?”. What followed was a military intelligence briefing on information warfare. I was stunned to be given this briefing but was immediately ensconced in it. I was told about cyber security, fake news, political subversion, and propaganda. The meeting was eye-opening to the scale and complexity of the ongoing operations between Lithuania and her adversaries. The challenges being faced are economic, political, and possibly most importantly social. The deluge of misinformation and the battle for public trust is a struggle of influence that will shape all operations and decisions for the foreseeable future.

The meeting concluded and I was told that a second, higher-up meeting might be imminent, so I was instructed not to go far. No sooner had I found a nearby café and ordered some coffee did my phone begin to ring.  My contact told me to “run not walk but run back here.” I literally sprinted back to the Defense Ministry and was readmitted through the same security screening. I was taken to another office where I sat and waited. Some time passed and then a man entered the office and was introduced as the Vice Minister of Defense of the Republic of Lithuania.

The Vice Minister was extremely cordial and immediately invited me into his office. The meeting lasted about an hour and upon completion I intensely thanked the vice minister and my contact for their time and letting me share this experience. My contact escorted me back to the main lobby where we departed for the day, but not before giving me a custom-made itinerary of possible attractions to see throughout Vilnius.

I spent the remaining two days in Vilnius doing just that. I toured some sights I had previously visited such as Independence Square and the Gates of Dawn. But more than that, my contact had provided me a slew of new sites and attractions to see across the city. A photography exhibition at the main city post office showcased fan mailed images depicting Lithuanian military themes and the 100-year anniversary of Lithuanian nationhood post World War One. I visited the National Art Gallery housing a series of works depicting life in Lithuania under Soviet rule. The focus was on the everyday life of people experiencing everything from the weather to political uprising. I soared above medieval Vilnius in a virtual reality tour at the National History Museum and stood in on mass and a grand procession at the National Cathedral which happened to be celebrating the holiday Epiphany or Three Kings Day. I chose to try Lithuanian cuisine such as cepelinai and saltibarsciai while consistently disappointing local people with my attempts at speaking Lithuanian.

I felt very privileged to have this experience as part of my undergraduate involvement in the Lithuania Program at the Havighurst Center at Miami University led by professor Neringa Klumbytė. I got a deeper sense of Lithuanian identity and meaning. As a citizen from an allied nation, I saw a snapshot of the professional operations that allied governments partake in to strengthen mutual trust, security, and cooperation. As a Lithuanian-American, visiting the land of his namesake for the second time, I felt connected to people in a land, whose heritage I share. These sentiments culminated on my final night in Vilnius. I was with my contact having dinner and drinks at a local bar. Before leaving I reached into my backpack and presented my contact with a folded American flag. I explained how to hold and display the flag and then passed it ceremonially to him. “To an ally and friend, from my country and family to yours,” I said. The importance of such connections, both personal and professional cannot be understated, and the experiences created I will treasure in my memory.   

Several months after, Joe Margevicius (first on the right) with Linas Linkevičius, the Lithuanian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Neringa Klumbytė and Matthew Stanionis, the President of Lithuania Club@MU. April 5, 2019, Ohio State University, Columbus.

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