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Seeking friendship without alliance, US and Serb troops take the plunge

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 23, 2017

LISICJI JARAK AIRPORT, Serbia – As dozens of U.S. Army and Serbian paratroopers jumped out of a pair of C-130Js into a bleak November sky, they had an eager audience.

On the ground, journalists with long lenses jockeyed for position, and politicians and military officials, seated on a makeshift stage facing the field, applauded as the paratroopers nailed their landing on the soggy field and began gathering up their chutes.

The U.S. and Serbian armed forces were on opposite sides in 1999 during the 78-day war in Kosovo — now an independent nation. But there was no sign of enmity during Exercise Double Eagle, which involved four days of drills between the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Vicenza, Italy, and the 63rd Parachute Battalion, a crack Serbian unit that fought in the war.

The paratroopers “had a large dinner together” the night before, a spokeswoman announced to the crowd, adding to the pageantry of the event. “They exchanged experiences” and also socialized on previous days — “jumpers usually have lots of anecdotes,” she said.

For two countries that just a generation ago were at war, the exercise may be a sign that Serbia, one of the few Balkan nations that isn’t part of the 28-member NATO alliance, is opening more to the West.

“It’s a sign,” said Army Col. Douglas M. Faherty, the senior defense official and defense attache in Belgrade.

Of what, perhaps, remains to be seen. Serbia continues to maintain close ties with Russia, with whom Serbs share strong historic, cultural and religious ties. It just recently obtained six MiG-29 fighters from Russia and is expecting the delivery of two more An-26 twin-turbojet transports for its airborne forces.

The country has vowed military neutrality but it’s also striving for membership in the European Union, a bid that could be hampered by its refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Wherever the country’s political future lies, Double Eagle was far from the typical training done in recent years between U.S. and Serbian forces. It was “the biggest conventional mass tactical operation ever done” between the two countries, Faherty said.

Many of the U.S. military’s engagements with Serbia involve training between engineers and medical workers, he said. Serbian medics, for example, are preparing to deploy to Angola with the Ohio National Guard next month.

The Ohio Guard and the Serbian military have been paired up since 2006 through the Partnership for Peace program, a NATO initiative aimed at improving security by building trust among members of NATO and other European states.

But the last special operations exchange was about 10 years ago, and that comprised a much smaller group of soldiers, Faherty said.

‘Time to move on’

Most of the training last week took place at Batajnica Air Base near Belgrade, where soldiers with the 173rd bunked in the barracks and ate chow hall food while getting to know their Serbian counterparts.

When jumping from the two U.S. Air Force C-130s — deployed to Serbia from Ramstein Air Base, Germany — Serbs used U.S. Army parachutes and followed the direction of U.S. jumpmasters.

The training highlighted some differences, said Sgt. Kellen Wilson of the 173rd, who was responsible for jump safety on two flights.

“Some of these guys are free fall instructors,” Wilson said of the Serbian paratroopers. “So they (pause) at the door. We had to make sure there was no pause … you just rotate and go.”

For the Serbs, jumps from the side doors of the four-engine C-130J were a novelty, because they normally use the rear ramp door of the much smaller An-26 transports.

The exercise – as most joint training goes – serves to build compatibility, officials said. “We’re preparing our joint forces to be able to engage in international peacekeeping operations, whether that be under the flag of the United Nations, under the flag of NATO, or under the flag of the European Union,” said U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott.

But in Serbia, the Serb and American soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder also has great symbolic meaning, Scott said, after Friday’s ceremony with the paratroopers concluded.

Serbian-U.S. relations have improved considerably since the war, when an American-led NATO bombing campaign ended a campaign against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population.

The troubles of the past didn’t cloud the exercise, said Spc. Uros Dzelebdzic, 30, a combat medic and paratrooper with the 173rd. Dzelebdzic is a native Serbian who came to the United States as a teenage foreign exchange student.

“It was a very friendly atmosphere,” he said. “We were well received.” What happened in 1999 “didn’t come up at all,” he said.

Master Sgt. Vladimir Bjelic, 49, a Serbian jumpmaster with more than 730 jumps, said of the conflict, “that’s one part of our history we should never forget,” but not one of the U.S. paratroopers “are guilty for that.”

Yes, he feels he can call Americans friends “because they were very friendly — this time,” Bjelic joked.

Kidding aside, “we should move on,” he said.

Scott reiterated that theme. “It should be no surprise that the people of Serbia still remember vividly 1999 and the bombing campaign,” he said. “There’s still a bitterness that remains but the important point is to recognize, for many of the soldiers who jumped out of these planes, they were just children at the time.

“It’s time to move on … and I think that the president’s initiative to call for this exercise shows that he and the Serbian government are ready to do so.”

Friends but not allies

The Americans were in Serbia last week at the invitation of President Aleksandar Vucic, a once hard-line nationalist who served under President Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s. Milosevic died in 2006 while standing trial for war crimes at the international tribunal in The Hague.

Vucic extended the invitation in July at a meeting with Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. European Command, Faherty said, challenging the United States “to do a large bilateral exercise (in Serbia) before the end of this calendar year.”

The United States readily accepted.

“We’re quite happy to support them in that,” Faherty said, “because a Serbia at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbors, is better for the Serbian people and is better for Europe as a whole.”

Dimitar Bechev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the new book “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe,” said the United States “is gaining from drawing Serbia closer to its orbit at a time when the competition with Russia is picking up.”

Serbia wouldn’t be alone in its neutrality if accepted to the European Union. Several others, such as Ireland and Sweden, are not part of the military bloc.

“Their stated policy is … ‘friends with everybody, allies with no one,’” Faherty said. “Their government’s clear that they’re not pursuing NATO membership but they still want to stay actively engaged in strong partnerships.”

Vucic at the ceremony emphasized that Serbia was not taking sides. “Although Serbia is militarily neutral, we will continue to further this kind of cooperation in the future,” he said.

Bechev said the benefits of cooperating with the world’s most advanced militaries are well understood in Serbia. That’s why Serbia signed an individual partnership plan with NATO in 2015, he said. Such plans help deepen cooperation and assistance.

“But the political costs are there too,” Bechev said, referring to widespread popular opposition to closer ties with NATO. “So Serbia is working together with the alliance, but often under the radar.”

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American and Serbian paratroopers fly in a C-130 to a drop zone during Exercise Double Eagle near Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017.

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