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For Zarko Ivanov, a resident of the nearby town of Mokren, Bulgaria, a U.S. training exercise at Novo Selo this year is the only steady employment he has had since the Americans used the base for training last year. Like almost half of his village of 1,300 people, Ivanov is unemployed.
For Zarko Ivanov, a resident of the nearby town of Mokren, Bulgaria, a U.S. training exercise at Novo Selo this year is the only steady employment he has had since the Americans used the base for training last year. Like almost half of his village of 1,300 people, Ivanov is unemployed. (Russ Rizzo / S&S)

NOVO SELO TRAINING CENTER, Bulgaria — When Zarko Ivanov got word that the U.S. military would return here for training this year, he was the first in his village to sign up for a job.

He and his son had worked odd jobs at a similar U.S. exercise last year and knew about the money involved. The 45 levs — about $30 — a day the Americans offered for this year’s program is four times the normal pay in his village.

The $600 Ivanov will make in three weeks working as a janitor during Immediate Response 05 means more than just a little extra spending money. That’s because Ivanov, along with a majority of the 50 people working here from the nearby village of Mokren, has no steady employment waiting for him once the U.S. soldiers return to Germany.

“I don’t know what the future will show,” 43-year-old Ivanov said using an interpreter. “I don’t have any opportunities.”

Almost half of the 1,300 people who live in Mokren, just down the road from the training base, are unemployed, said Emil Enchev, the town’s mayor.

The main source of employment is a mushroom farm that pays 1.2 levs, or 74 cents, an hour for picking and packaging the crop. But even that work is seasonal, leaving townspeople scrambling for other work during the summer and winter.

Most people from Mokren end up going abroad to Greece, Spain and other countries to work in fields or factories, Enchev said.

That could change in coming years, as U.S. and Bulgarian officials negotiate to establish a more permanent U.S. military presence at Novo Selo and the nearby Bezmer Air Base, Enchev said.

“The people are happy to have the training because it brings an economy,” Enchev said.

Reliance on U.S. money makes local communities less likely to complain about noise from tanks and helicopters, Enchev said, a hurdle military officials grapple with at traditional training bases in places like Germany.

The U.S. military hired 136 Bulgarians for the exercise, said Mel Claxton, lead exercise planner. They included 90 people from Mokren and nearby cities such as Sliven who worked as janitors, kitchen staff and civilian role-players during training exercises, 34 translators hired from schools throughout Bulgaria and 11 subject-matter experts who toured around with military brass to translate and solve problems.

That marks a change from last year, when KBR brought in employees from outside Bulgaria, upsetting local leaders, Enchev said.

Radostina Petrova, a 19-year-old interpreter from Mokren, was one of the lucky ones to find a job at last year’s exercise. The money she made working at Bulwark 04 allowed her to pay for one year at Sofia University and to buy her first computer, she said.

James Pardew, the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, stressed the importance of U.S. money flowing into the country while talking about ongoing negotiations for more frequent access to Bulgarian bases. He said this year’s exercise would pump $1 million into areas around the training base. That does not count $240,000 in improvements the U.S. military offered for barracks building.

“We’ll be welcome guests the next time we come,” Claxton said.

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