WASHINGTON — There are thanks to the military during baseball games; there are thanks during hometown parades. There are discounts for many purchases and advantages for the military in some job applications.
And then there are the thanks from people who were on the ground, about to be killed, when the U.S. military came to save their lives.
Those thanks were heard in the Pentagon on Wednesday.
There is a new display on the walls of the A-ring in the Pentagon today, honoring U.S. and NATO forces that participated in Operation Allied Force. The 78-day air campaign, from March 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999, aimed at rescuing Kosovo’s mostly ethnic Albanian citizens from atrocities at the hands of the Yugoslav Serb military and para-military groups.
“You decided to act with humanity,” Vlora Çitaku, who was 18 during the 1999 campaign, said during the Wednesday unveiling ceremony. “We shall never forget the price for our freedom was steep.”
Kosovo is now an independent nation. Çitaku is now Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States.
“Imagine being in a country where everything is systematically taken away from you,” she said. “We hope to join NATO one day so our soldiers can flight alongside American soldiers around the world … to defend freedom.”
Çitaku was joined by Muharrem Alija, who was a young boy in Kosovo during the war. He described watching relatives and friends being killed in front of him and how he and others fled to a basement to hide.
It was only after they heard the bombing that they knew they were safe, he said — safe to begin the grim task of locating the bodies of their family and community members.
“Thank you,” he said repeatedly, looking into the eyes of the Air Force personnel sitting in the front rows near him.
Retired Lt. Gen. Dan “Fig” Leaf, who was the commander of the 31st Fighter Wing and 31st Expeditionary Wing out of Aviano Air Base, Italy, lamented that the Kosovo campaign is “largely forgotten and that’s unfortunate.” He led the operation as a one-star general, piloting one of the F-16 fighters that, in total, dropped an estimated 600 million pounds of ordinance.
“Its lessons could have been applied to [Operation] Enduring Freedom and the outcome would have been more credible,” Leaf said, referring to the post-post-September 11, 2001, campaign in Afghanistan.
“This was a good old-fashioned fight of good against evil, and good won.”