U.S., Bulgarian Airmen repair parks, build bridges

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U.S. Air Force members rake and clean debris from a soccer field April 22, 2012, in Graf Ignatievo, Bulgaria. More than 150 U.S. and Bulgarian air force members volunteered their off-duty time to refurbish playground equipment and build a soccer field at a village playground. Volunteers cleaned and painted playground equipment and raked, supplied new goals, cleaned and laid grass seed down in a field. U.S. Air Force members are deployed from the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, to Graf Ignatievo Air Force Base in support of Thracian Star 2012, a bilateral coalition training exercise geared towards strengthening partnerships and improving interoperability between NATO allies.

Second Lt. Bryan Humphries, 31st Maintenance Squadron, cleans playground equipment at a park in Graf Ignatievo, Bulgaria April 22, 2012. More than 150 U.S. and Bulgarian air force members volunteered their off-duty time to refurbish playground equipment and build a soccer field at a village park. U.S. Air Force members are deployed from the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, to Graf Ignatievo Air Force Base to participate in Thracian Star 2012, a coalition training exercise geared towards strengthening partnerships and improving interoperability between NATO allies.

GRAF IGNATIEVO, Bulgaria -- More than 150 U.S. and Bulgarian air force members volunteered free time to clean up two parks in the community here April 22.

The U.S. forces are deployed to Bulgaria for Thracian Star 2012, a coalition exercise geared toward strengthening partnerships with NATO allies. In keeping with that theme, Airmen ventured out into the community to help where they could.

Before arriving, Dr. (Capt.) Rocky Jedick, 510th Fighter Squadron flight surgeon, spoke with the mayor of a local village and asked if the community had any projects the unit could take on. The mayor, Ivan Semerdjiev, in return requested their assistance with refurbishing playground equipment and making a new soccer field at the local park.

"Today we continue a pre-established partnership between the American and Bulgarian militaries and the Bulgarian community that helps and gives assistance to the Bulgarian children," said Semerdjiev. "They are establishing a new soccer field that the children will be able to play on for years to come."

U.S. and Bulgarian air force members rose to the challenge. Armed with paint brushes, paint, wood stain, rakes, picks, shovels and wheel barrows, the volunteers got to work.

The playground equipment for younger children received a new coat of vibrant paint, while wooden benches for the elderly were freshly stained. For the village youth, participants began clearing a large field of rocks, old grass, weeds and debris so that grass seed could be laid for the soccer field.

Local children seemed hardly able to wait. Many rode up on their bicycles and began playing soccer next to the workers in the field, with some volunteers taking a well-earned break from their labors to join in.

Older community members also seemed curious about the goings-on in their park and began helping. Some villagers even brought additional wheelbarrows and carts for hauling the debris away.

One resident, Dimo Bankov, said he really appreciated what the volunteers were doing for the community and that other community members feel the same way.

"As you can see, our children love to play soccer," he said. "Now they will have a proper field to play on with brand new goals, thanks to these people. They have been out working hard all day to help us. It is good to see people from two different countries working together for the children."

Since Bulgaria's inclusion into the NATO alliance in 2004, U.S. forces have visited the country several times, working hand-in-hand with the Bulgarian air force to increase military interoperability between the nations. It has become tradition to also work together in the community, building a multi-faceted partnership. The Graf Ignatievo mayor said he hopes the tradition continues.

"The U.S. is the first of our allies to actually help the community in some way," Semerdjiev said. "Before we became a part of NATO, our allies would come, use our base and leave. Americans always give back. Look at how hard they are working -- working together with the Bulgarians. They are creating something special for the children, something that will last."

Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Clark, 31st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron egress section chief and one of the volunteers, also participated in an exercise here in 2008. He said he enjoyed doing volunteer work in the community the last time he was here and was happy to do so again.

"This is a very worthwhile project," Clark said. "This park was in pretty bad shape when we got here, and you can see these kids would really like a place to play. It's worthwhile just to see them excited as they are. Everyone is so happy to be out here and helping. [The community members] keep thanking us and giving us high fives -- it's really cool." 

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