AVIANO AB, Italy — Veton Elshani finally got a chance Friday to see a place he has known about for several years.

“This place is very special for me,” said Elshani, gesturing to the runway and hangars that comprise a part of Aviano Air Base.

As a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the province’s conflict with greater Yugoslavia in 1999, the ethnic Albanian remembers watching American aircraft fly overhead on bombing missions during Operation Allied Force. He knew the name of the base from where many of the planes were coming and saw the results of some of the bombings.

On Friday, he got to see a few F-16 Fighting Falcons up close on the ground, and watch them roar off into the sky.

“I knew the after and now I know the before,” said Elshani, now a member of the Kosovo Police Service. “This is a great experience.”

Elshani is one of 93 students from 31 countries attending a class at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. This week, it was field trip time for professor Nick Pratt and the members of his “Leaders for the 21st Century” class.

Almost all of the students hail from countries that used to comprise the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact. During the nine-week course, they’ll spend most of their time at the center, located north of the Alps in southern Germany.

Pratt said students go through a “rigorous curriculum” there, learning about a variety of concepts the United States and its partners in NATO employ.

The five-day swing through Italy was designed to show students some of those concepts at work. Aviano was the last official stop on the tour.

Mission briefings from base commanders were scheduled after a morning of watching the planes, pilots and crews at work.

The trip started with a long bus ride to Naples and a visit to Allied Forces South headquarters.

“Students got to sit in the facility and see the officers actually doing their jobs,” Pratt said.

That was followed by a trip to Rome and stops at the NATO Defense College, Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and World Food Program offices. Pratt said the World Food Program stop showed students a nonmilitary organization that deals in crisis management on a constant basis.

Ilaha Novruzova, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Azerbaijan, said she enjoyed meeting with the Italian diplomats and exchanging views. She said the course is giving her a lot of information she’ll be able to use and share with co-workers when she returns home.

Irakli Chikovani is from Georgia, another former Soviet republic. He said he’s been paying close attention in the classroom, but seeing members of the military at work makes the picture clearer.

“We actually get to see those who are actually implementing [the concepts],” he said.

Pratt said he was sure students enjoyed the display of military firepower on the runway. But he said that those paying attention could see another concept that most of them aren’t familiar with in their home countries: airmen of mixed races, genders and ranks all contributing to get the planes off the ground.

“This is huge for them,” said David Torma, a captain in the Naval Reserve and trip coordinator, as he and the students watched the planes rocket into the sky. “Of course, this is impressive no matter who you are.”

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now