Kosovo, free at last

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Synovitz
  • Air Mobility Command Air Operations Squadron Detachment 2 commander
You don't hear it enough: the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth. Our very existence gives the hope of liberty to those who are oppressed. 

To protect our liberty, Air Combat Command bombers provide global power, AMC cargo aircraft deliver global reach, and Air Mobility Command tankers enable global mobility. These vital assets constitute a rapid-response capability unmatched by any other nation. There is no place on Earth that the United States cannot deliver weapons or humanitarian assistance in less than 24 hours. Altus Air Force Base, the schoolhouse of C-17 and KC-135 air mobility aircrews, should be proud of its role in making the United States the greatest nation on earth.

Case in point: In 1999, 21-year-old Tony was a Kosovo refugee living temporarily in a muddy tent-city erected in neighboring Albania. At the same time each night, Tony and his displaced countrymen would gather around a small radio in their tent and listen to Radio Free Europe's news broadcast in order to stay informed of NATO's progress in the war to save Kosovo (Operation Allied Force). For nearly a decade, Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosovic had methodically conducted "ethnic cleansing" (genocide) against his own people in the sub-states of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia.

In May of 1999, I was two years into my favorite assignment as a KC-135 instructor pilot at Altus AFB. I loved my job and immersed myself in giving everything I could to train sharp tanker crewmembers. The 54th and 55th Air Refueling Squadrons saw an opportunity and decided to send two Altus tankers, three instructor aircrews, and a handful of our "A-Team" civilian aircraft maintainers to Europe to support the NATO effort against Milosovic. Most of the student pilots I had trained were already positioned and flying from bases around Europe. I was honored to be on one of the three Altus aircrews. Aware of the importance of the Altus mission of generating qualified combat aircrews, I was happy to volunteer to deploy and contribute to the war in a more direct manner. This small contingent from Team Altus represented not only Altus AFB but the U.S. Air Force, the United States, and NATO. We did our part, flying daily sorties for a month and then returning home to our jobs in the big training machine. Our highly experienced A-Team civilians were lauded as outstanding mentors to the young military maintainers overseas.

As hostilities ended, my brother Ron, a journalist for Radio Free Europe, was sent to Pristina, Kosovo, to write stories on the aftermath of the war. Standing along the side of a highway that connected the border of Albania to the city of Pristina, he watched a pathetic parade of ragged refugees slowly march eastward to learn the fate of their homes and loved ones. They looked grungy. They were tired but hopeful. They carried everything they could. The march included the young and the old. It included cattle. It included beat-up vehicles. Ron watched a tractor surge and bounce along as if it had a square tire.

Among the returning refugees was Tony. I've seen his picture. Dressed in athletic shorts, a basketball jersey, tennis shoes, and sporting a baseball cap over his crew-cut hair, Tony looked just like you or me. He looked like an American. The only obvious difference was the homemade Kosovo flag that he wore draped around his shoulders like a cape. The flag was red with a black two-headed eagle silhouette painted in the center. My brother selected Tony to interview.

"Excuse me. My name is Ron. I'm a reporter for Radio Free Europe."

"You work for Radio Free Europe?" Tony's face lit up. He spoke with a Slavic accent.

"Yes," I replied.

"Wow, we listened to you guys every night!" Tony said. "You were the only source of information we could get on the war! My name is Tony," he said, extending his hand.

As the slow parade continued behind them, Ron and Tony talked about Kosovo, the war, the living conditions in tent city, and Tony's political opinions. When Tony mentioned NATO and then the U.S. Air Force, Ron said that his brother was a tanker pilot in the U.S. Air Force who flew combat support missions overhead. Immediately, Tony removed the homemade flag from his shoulders and gave it to Ron. This flag represented Tony's pride in his home, his family, and his country. How could he give it up so easily?

Ron knew this was an awesome gesture and accepted it, but he asked if Tony would first sign the flag. Tony wrote: "A gift to Ron and Mark from Tony. On July 2, 1999, Kosova is free at last! Kosova e lire!"

It is not the required military strength that makes the United States of America the greatest nation on Earth. It is our liberty and our willingness to fight for it. Altus AFB fights for it every day.