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Defense Leaders Salute "Guardians of Liberty"

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy, April 9, 1999 – Defense ministers, military leaders and congressmen hailed the military men and women here supporting NATO's Operation Allied Force as "guardians of liberty."

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, Italian Defense Minister Carlo Scognamiglio and U.S. Air Force Gen. Joe Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed about 200 pilots, crews and support personnel here April 8. A 12-member congressional delegation also traveled with Cohen.

"We are all deeply indebted to each and every one of you," Cohen told American, British, Canadian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and other allied troops. On behalf of the United States, the secretary commended the allied service members for their courage, professionalism and patriotism. He thanked them for their part in opposing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's military forces.

The Serb leader "has carried all of us into the heart of darkness," the secretary said. Milosevic and "his hooded thugs" are destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. "They are engaging in rape, pillage and mass murder on a scale that we have not seen since World War II. And then they're either burying the evidence or burning it."

Serb forces have pushed more than a million people from their homes, causing "depravation and suffering that is almost unimaginable," Cohen continued. "Now Mr. Milosevic holds up his bloody hands and [says], 'NATO made me do it.'"

NATO has long sought a peaceful solution, Cohen stressed, but when diplomacy ultimately failed, military action was deemed necessary as a last resort. NATO strikes will go on until Milosevic meets alliance demands to pull back his forces, allow the refugees to return and agree to a NATO- led peacekeeping force, Cohen said.

"The civilized world cannot accept any phony gestures of conciliation," he said. "We cannot accept any paper promises of peace that Mr. Milosevic can shred at his own convenience."

The alliance is united in its determination to end the crisis, Cohen told the troops. "NATO will prevail because of you," he emphasized. "You are the guardians of liberty. You are the steel in the sword of freedom. Mr. Milosevic is going to feel the weight, the heft and the sharpness of that steel day in and day out until such time as there is an agreement to the principles that NATO insists upon."

Italian defense minister Scognamiglio said he was pleased to see so many young people serving the cause of freedom. "I'm not a young person," he remarked, "and I still remember what the United States has done for liberty in Europe, particularly for my country. We will never forget."

Nor will Italy forget that NATO has provided security, stability and prosperity to Western Europe for 50 years, Scognamiglio said. "Now NATO has a very important task to do," he said. The alliance must defend its core values -- liberty, democracy, the respect of minorities and human lives, he said, and "the right to have a home."

"What you are doing at this moment is to preserve these eternal values of our civilization the values we have in our mind and in our heart," Scognamiglio told the allied troops. "Thank you very much from my government and my country."

Ralston didn't talk about Kosovo. He talked about what it takes to conduct the air campaign. An F-16 pilot and veteran of 330 missions during the Vietnam War, Ralston said he knows what the aircrews are going through.

"As a professional airmen, my hat is off to you for the great job that's being done," he told the pilots and crews. "I very much appreciate what it's like to take off in the middle of the night and to be out there trying to find your tanker to refuel; trying to find your entry point, fight your way through the defenses, get to the target area, find your target, put your bomb on target -- with the entire world watching to see if you do it right."

And that's only a small piece of the effort involved, Ralston stressed. NATO's air campaign involves a wealth of international combat and support aircraft, maintenance crews and other support personnel. "It is a tremendously complex effort," he said. "I, for one, very much appreciate what you're doing, the way you're doing it. It could not be better. Just keep doing what you're doing."

Cohen and the congressional delegation later met individually with some of the members of the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing here. The delegation comprised Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Carl Levin of Michigan, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John McCain of Arizona, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Tim Hutchison of Arkansas; and Reps. Steve Buyer of Indiana, Sam Gejdensen of Connecticut, Ike Skelton of Missouri, John Spratt of South Carolina, Ellen Tauscher of California and Jim Turner of Texas.

Leaving Aviano, Cohen traveled to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to see humanitarian airlift operations there and meet with German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping. Cohen returned to Washington later that evening.

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