Georgia on my mind

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Republic of Georgia Army Pvt. 1st Class Vasil Kulijanishvili was patrolling the perimeter of Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, with his unit Sept. 22, as one of 885 Georgian soldiers supporting NATO’s Operation Resolute Support when he was attacked and killed by Taliban militants.

The next day, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili led a national moment of silence and Ian Kelly, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, ordered the embassy’s flag to half-staff.

Kelly said that Kuljanishvili’s “bravery and sacrifice in support of international security symbolize the heroism and valor of Georgian soldiers who fight shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. Marines and Afghan government forces in Afghanistan — as equals, friends and brothers.”

I had just arrived to my new assignment at the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Band at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, when the band was invited to go to Georgia to strengthen our national relations with the country. Our leaders believed that American Airmen performing in person and on television before millions of Georgians could transcend language barriers, building on existing cooperation to enhance proven partnerships between the countries.

The Air Force has been using music to build partnerships, reassure allies and maintain military traditions in Europe since the 1940s, and to many of the band’s Airmen, serving as American ambassadors of goodwill was an everyday occurrence here.

But this was all new to me.

In the middle of the night on Oct. 15, I found myself in the Tblisi International Airport in Georgia with police and curious onlookers watching as 33 USAFE bandsmen retrieved strangely shaped suitcases filled with tubas, tambourines and trumpets from baggage claim. We crammed onto a bus and took off down George W. Bush Boulevard into the capital city with Georgian military police escorts, with lights flashing.

The next morning, I learned more about this beautiful and complex society and its 2,000-year history from a taxi cab driver who expressed his appreciation for America and told me how hard it was growing up in a Soviet “colony.” In broken English, he said he wanted his sons to “know freedom,” but Russia had cast a “dark shadow.”

The taxi driver’s perspective echoed the comments Gen. Phillip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe, made to Congress earlier this year: “(Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) have implemented political and economic reforms to advance democracy and integrate with Europe; however, their ability to make further progress is significantly constrained by Russian interference and pressure.”

I couldn’t help but think of those words as we traveled through the rural countryside to our first concert in Gori, Georgia.

Gori, a city of approximately 50,000 people and birthplace of Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, is located just a few kilometers from the border that caused conflict during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Russians bombed and occupied the city. Local leaders were forced to flee and more than a dozen citizens were killed.

We took the stage at a beautiful Soviet-era theater that was starting to show its age, and Georgian soldiers — some straight out of basic training, I was told — filled the theater. Standing in the wings, I peered out at the camo-clad crowd as the house lights dimmed, and I wondered if music could truly transcend language barriers and enhance partnerships.

As the band’s commander led both national anthems and went on with the show, I was surprised by how much American music the Georgian soldiers knew. It was as if this American music was a part of them. Their faces brightened. There was smiling, cheering and even dancing. It was a powerful moment.

I thought of America’s influential economy, its military might, its geopolitical pull, and then I watched as Georgian soldiers reacted overwhelmingly to American music.

Could culture itself be one of America’s most powerful exports? Could it be a symbol of freedom and a beacon for human rights? Could the power of attraction to American culture inspire nations to cooperate and see eye to eye in a way military force, by itself, couldn’t?

When it was my turn to conduct the band, the announcer thanked the soldiers for their dedication in support of NATO efforts in Afghanistan and dedicated “Amazing Grace,” sung by Master Sgt. Michele Harris, to Kulijanishvili, the Georgian soldier killed just a few weeks earlier.

As I led the band through that pensive hymn, I couldn’t help but think about Kulijanishvili and his fellow service members on the rapid reaction force at Bagram. I thought of his family and friends. I also thought of all those Georgian soldiers packed into that old theater listening to the USAFE Band.

After the show, we mingled with the soldiers in the crowd. They were euphoric. The language barrier did not hinder our interactions as the smiles, pats on the back, and the music said things words couldn’t. This enriching person-to-person interaction was at the very core of our goal of preserving partnerships, sustaining relationships and improving capacity and interoperability. It wasn’t about the music, but the music was the tool that helped us build bonds of trust with these young soldiers who could one day share a battlefield with Americans.

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