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U.S. Ends Presences at Taszar Air Base

European Command

Release Date: July 7, 2004
JOC Tim Adams
U.S. European Command, Public Affairs

TASZAR, Hungary - The U.S. flag was lowered on NATO's first military base in former Warsaw Pact territory as the American presence there came to an end in a ceremony June 30. The overall successes of the Peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo and the smaller number of soldiers required there have eliminated the need for the Taszar facility according to Rear Adm. John Goodman of the U.S. European Command, in Stuttgart, Germany.

Lt. Col. Sandor Kisbenedek, the Hungarian base Commander, said, "Our joint work and challenges have fostered life long friendships between American and Hungarian soldiers and as a token of our mutual respect we gather here to lower the Hungarian and American flags." Those flags and a number of other gifts and plaques were exchanged between officials as part of the ceremony that was accompanied by a Hungarian military band playing marches and national anthems from both countries. Hungarian honor guards and marching units punctuated the events with precision performances before a Soviet MIG fighter as a stark reminder of the base's original mission.

Taszar was once a Soviet airfield during the Cold War, but it became the primary staging post for peacekeeping forces coming and going into the Balkans in December of 1995. It was the closest airfield to the Balkans capable of landing strategic aircraft and was an excellent ground hub as well, with good rail and road links and a superb work force. The base then evolved into the first site for unmanned Predator aircraft missions, a rest and recreation site for Balkan based soldiers, a training ground for armored units and a home base for aircraft that made reconnaissance and bombing runs to stop ethnic-cleansing in Kosovo. In more recent times it hosted the largest special operations exercise in Europe and served as the site for training the Free Iraqi Forces that would go on to help liberate Iraq.

"Through all of these many missions we have greatly appreciated the tremendous support we have received from the Ministry of Defense and the Hungarian Defense Forces," said U.S. Ambassador George H. Walker. "Especially the fine work and cooperation of Lt. Col. Kisbenedek and his force here on the ground at Taszar. Over a nine year period we have seen a microcosm of global issues played out right here in Taszar with this important air base and the people who have worked here playing a significant role in many important events," continued Walker.

Hungary was not a member of NATO when they volunteered the airbase to help with peacekeeping in Bosnia, but that first involvement was so positive it swayed public and parliamentary opinion and paved the way for admission to the alliance in 1999 according to U.S. Col. Mike Anderson. He was the first commander or "mayor" of the base and he is responsible for implementing and defining U.S. policy in Europe now.

Anderson established such strong relationships during his tenure that his Hungarian associates saw him off with tears in their eyes and welcomed him back for this ceremony with warm embraces and kisses on both cheeks. Anderson fondly reminisced about the many treats he was given, including homemade pancakes from the Mayor's assistant during the bitter winter of 1995. He then honored a last request for one of his dress uniforms so it could be enshrined in the airbase museum in his honor. "I believe that through our positive, personal contacts we did much to pave the way for Hungary's successful admission to the NATO alliance," said Col. Anderson.

"Without a doubt the people of Hungary must have been concerned about hosting foreign soldiers so soon after the departure of Soviet forces," said RADM Goodwin. "But you welcomed us with open arms and we quickly learned that Americans and Hungarians are very much alike, that we share a love of freedom and a passion for life. Our governments learned this too and four years later Hungary joined us as allies in NATO."

The local population received the new-comers with growing acceptance and stories started coming out about elderly ladies stopping American vehicles while holding big plates of fresh-baked apple pies. "Eat my sons," they said. "This is not something you can get on your base!"

"The presence of our American friends at that time gave us an excellent opportunity to train and practice important operations which are so useful and very key in the missions of NATO and host nation support," said Hungary's Minister of Defense Political State Secretary, Imre Ivancsik. "This is the time you helped us integrate into the alliance. Our joint work will continue and we will do our best to intensify our cooperation."

More than 100,000 U.S. troops have been passed through Taszar changing forever the people of Somogy County. U.S. forces spent over $10 million upgrading the Taszar air field and have been one of the area's largest employers. There were as many as 1,500 workers at one time earning overall some $8,000,000 per year. Over $30,000,000 per year was spent on the local economy during the active years.

"You came as guests," said Karoly Szita, Mayor of Kaposvar as he gave a special commemorative silver coin to Rear Adm. Goodwin. "But you are leaving as friends."

"Though the American departure from Taszar ends one chapter in the history of our friendship, there are many chapters more to be written as we look forward into the future," said Goodwin.

Ambassador Walker concluded by saying, "this region will always have a special place in the hearts of Americans. The history we have shared over these nine years will be long remembered by the thousands of soldiers who have passed through here and their commanders and leaders. So once again I would like to say thank you, thank you, thank you."

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