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Proud to Be an American: Witness to Kosovars' Arrival

By 1st Lt. Mike Nachshen, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

MCGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, N.J., May 12, 1999 – I was on the flight line helping escort about 325 reporters when Tower Air 747, call sign Kosovo One, touched down May 5 at 4:18 p.m.

As the wide-bodied plane descended with a manifest of more than 400 Kosovar refugees, a hush fell over the assembled reporters. The only sound was that of the aircraft's wheels making contact with the tarmac.

What struck me was that I was watching history in the making, and that I was playing a small (extremely small) part in this momentous event. A few moments later, the first refugees began departing the plane and boarding buses that would take them to their temporary home at nearby Fort Dix.

I was less than 100 feet from the refugees, and was able to see their faces as they stepped off the plane.

The first person I saw walk down the stairs was a little boy, probably 7 or 8 years old. His face and clothes were dirty, he clutched a ragged teddy bear in his right hand and a small blue plastic bag in his right -- at that moment in time, that was everything he owned.

He squinted into the bright light at the hundreds of reporters, VIPs and uniformed people there and made his way toward the bus. Then a woman, holding the hands of her two small children, walked off the plane, followed by a man bent with old age who wore a traditional skullcap on his head.

As the refugees continued to disembark, I tried to put myself in their shoes. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be chased out of their homeland at gunpoint, to see loved ones murdered and raped and homes burnt to the ground, to walk hundreds of miles to a squalid refugee camp, then board a plane and, finally, arrive in a country where there would be enough to eat, a bed to sleep in, and a military that protects, not persecutes, its citizens.

I think I must have got a speck of dust in my eyes, because they started to water and wouldn't stop. About an hour later, I was in a gym in the Fort Dix Kosovar compound, informally dubbed "The Village."

As various officials briefed the new arrivals, I found myself looking at our Kosovar guests. I think they were bewildered, overwhelmed -- and touched -- by all the attention they were receiving.

I watched small children play. They ran around, wrestled with each other, played tag, and did everything they could to drive their mothers nuts. What really struck me was that these kids, despite what they'd been through, played the same way American kids do.

Then, the floor of the gym was swarming with large men wearing black suits and sunglasses, speaking into hand-held microphones and looking everywhere for bad guys.

Moments later, first lady Hillary Clinton took the mike. She talked for about 10 minutes -- I don't remember everything she said, because what stands out in my mind happened after she started to leave. As she headed toward the door, the refugees stood up, and started chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A."

Everyone was on their feet, from little old ladies in babushka scarves to teen-agers wearing blue jeans and Miami Dolphin jackets. The gym was shaking from their enthusiastic clapping and foot-stomping.

I can't tell you how proud I felt at that moment. Even now, days after the event, I can still hear them chanting and can still see them on their feet, cheering with everything they had. Words, and the television footage that has dominated the evening news, cannot capture the outpouring of emotion in that room.

I'm sure they felt relief and gratitude because they were no longer in harm's way, but I also think they felt something more. I think these people were genuinely ecstatic about being in America, a country that espouses the values of liberty, equality and justice, a country with laws that protect people against the kind of hatred the Kosovars escaped.

And a country willing to take a stand, and lead our NATO allies against a brutal dictator who uses thug-like tactics to accomplish his goals. It's probably safe to say that every other airman and soldier in the gym was caught up in the pep-rally feel of the moment. Several GIs were shouting and clapping along with the refugees.

I also think there must have been a lot of dust in the room, because the three soldiers standing next to me were rubbing their eyes. As I listened to these people who had been chased out of their homeland fill the gym with their voices, I realized that this was why I had joined the Air Force -- to serve my country and make the world a better, safer place.

I have never felt more proud to wear my uniform, and I have never felt so proud to be a citizen of America -- the greatest country in the world.

[First Lt. Mike Nachshen is deputy chief of public affairs at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.]

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