US honors Serbian friendship
By Jennifer Aldridge
PRANJANI, Serbia --The cheers of more than 520 World War II Allied airmen being evacuated from Pranjani is a 68-year-old memory for the residents of this rural, farming village. The town is home to the greatest rescue operation behind enemy lines during the Second World War. The people of Pranjani risked their lives to care for downed American aviators until their eventual evacuation in 1944.
"When this nation was embroiled in war, they assumed a great deal of risk on our behalf," said Colonel Darren Zimmer, U.S. European Command J4 deputy. "Our airmen were shot down, they went out…they recovered them, fed our airmen, took care of them, and safeguarded them. It was a tremendous operation at considerable risk to the lives and livelihood of this community."
The people of Pranjani put themselves in jeopardy because it was a right thing to do, said Ivan Tasic, a U.S. Emba ssy Office of Defense Cooperation local national.
"They did not do this expecting any reward or compensation," he said. "This moral should be stressed and passed on to later generations."
On September 25, Pranjani's youngest generation, the students of Ivo Andaric Primary School, received a lesson in history and friendship. The U.S. European Command, U.S. Embassy Belgrade, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District, Serbian government officials and local community gathered at the school to celebrate the completion of a $640,000 gymnasium and community center with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The school children marked the event with song and dance in traditional Serbian attire. During the ceremony, students reiterated the hospitality and warmth their grandparents afforded U.S. Soldiers over half a century ago.
The execution of this project was especially rewarding, it was an opportunity to say thank you for the incredible WWII efforts the U.S. was unable to recognize for so many years, said Dr. Ame Stormer, EUCOM humanitarian assistance program manager.
"This was a way to demonstrate to Pranjani that the U.S. doesn't forget the heroic efforts of its friends," Stormer said.
The EUCOM funded, USACE managed project included the completion of the gymnasium, addition of a latrine facility and renovation to the main school floors and windows. The Gornji Milanovac Municipality launched the project and built the structure, David Golden, Europe District's EUCOM humanitarian assistance program manager said.
"They started this gym, but ran out of money, so it was a perfect opportunity for EUCOM and USACE to come in and finish up with something the community had already seen as a need," Golden said.
The fruition of this project is a result of many organizations and individuals partnering together, Tasic said.
"As a part of this project, I feel truly proud and happy to provide to the pupils of Pranjani facilities, learning and living conditions like their peers in larger cities," he said. "This project demonstrates that the U.S. provides assistance where it is needed and helps Serbia in its development."
It is critical for the U.S. to continue to provide humanitarian aid to countries like Serbia, Stormer said.
"There are few other ways the Department of Defense can thank countries for their support or encourage additional support and partnership," she said.
The 1,580 square-meter school gymnasium is the most recent, but not the first humanitarian assistance project completed by EUCOM in Serbia.
"EUCOM HA projects help upgrade the quality-of-life in various communities throughout Serbia," Tasic said. "Now hundreds of students have better schools, children with disabilities have special needs facilities and hospitals have better working condition. The combined HA project buildup improves the overall capacities of Serbia and helps the country in its transition towards joining the European family."
The aim of the program is to bring goodwill and further stability to Eastern European countries, recovering from conflicts, through EUCOM humanitarian assistance, Stormer said.
"What makes this program special is we are able to help people by providing much needed humanitarian assistance while enabling and supporting U.S. strategic priorities," she said.
In addition to Serbia, EUCOM executes the HA program in 17 countries throughout its area of responsibility.
In fiscal year 2013, 16 renovated fire, search and rescue facilities will be completed in Latvia and the second phase of a telemedicine network, enabling regional hospitals to attend training and tele-consult, will be delivered in Albania, as a result of the EUCOM program. A total 49 projects are anticipated to be executed in 2013.
"One of the wonderful things about the humanitarian assistance program is it allows us to put a civil/military face on military operations," Zimmer said. "This is an opportunity to show that our military is concerned with helping to build strong, vibrant communities and [nation]-states that we can work with."