Army preparing trips to Sofia as break for troops in Kosovo
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo — Troops deployed to Kosovo should soon see improvements in their pass program.
Many have taken advantage of the four-day Fighter Management Pass Program to go to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, and to don civilian clothes, turn into tourists or visit family members who have traveled to Sofia to meet them.
But so far, troops have been left to themselves to find entertainment after the five-hour bus ride from Kosovo.
That will change with the military developing an entire tour package and guidebook, which Lt. Col. Kevin Jackson of Area Support Group Falcon believes will give troops an opportunity to plan better and get the most out of their trip.
It is hoped the guide, which will be in both printed form and on the Internet, will introduce troops to more than just the common bar-hopping
The new guide will have information on Bulgarian culture, available entertainment, historic sites and museums, monasteries, national parks and quality dining.
On a recent trip to Sofia, Jackson led a group of soldiers on a walk through the city. They stumbled upon an opera house and learned of a show the next night.
Shopping followed. Jackson bought a suit, a silk shirt, a tie and shoes. The dress-up night out included front seats at the opera and a multi-course dinner — all for what a single ticket would have cost in the States.
As soon as they found out about the opera, another group of soldiers followed suit.
“We saw a lot of smiles from people who experienced something they didn’t expect to experience,” Jackson said.
Details on the opera will be in the guide. So will be an explanation on how to experience traditional dining in a village restaurant near Sofia where diners can enjoy local cooking, the sounds of live music and the sight of dancers in folk costumes.
It will also have tips on shopping in Bulgaria, which has great values on dishes, leather and T-shirts, Jackson said.
Troops with the Pennsylvania National Guard 28th Infantry Division, who are replacing the Germany-based 1st Infantry Division, will be the first to enjoy the improved package when the Sofia trips resume Aug. 8.
Jackson said families will be traveling all the way from the States, not just from Germany, to meet the troops, so his office wants to “raise the bar of the quality-of-life experience” for those traveling the extra distance.
The Web site, currently under construction, will also have information for those traveling from the States. It will offer tips on airlines, taxis and exchange rates, and will have a link off the existing Web site for KFOR’s Multinational Brigade East, www.tffalcon.hqusareur.army.mil.
Other links included will be on the weather in Sofia and the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria.
The information should help family members flying from the States know what to expect.
“We just want to take the mystery out of it,” Jackson said.
The military is putting together a 12- to 16-page brochure funded by U.S. Army Europe that will give some of the same information as the Web site, plus maps.
There will also be some improvements at the hotel in Sofia where the military reserves rooms for servicemembers.
For those who would rather relax without going out, there are plans to introduce VCRs and movies, board games and cards that troops can sign out. The hotel is also to get access to English-language TV channels; only Bulgarian and German-language ones are available so far.
The military has been pleased with the hotel: standard rooms are 30 euros a night, with buffet breakfast included, and there have no incidents or thefts so far. Security and around-the-clock translators are available to troops
The military is renegotiating the contract with the hotel to add a clause about improving carpeting, and has signed a contract with the nearby hospital to provide services to troops.
“If they’re gonna spend money for [this trip], it’s gotta be a great experience,” Jackson said of the improvements.