It is a distinct honor for me to talk about the great relationship we have with Serbia as co-chair of the Congressional Serbia Caucus. Serbia is a great friend of the United States.
As a Texan, I have great admiration for the people of Serbia. Our strong opinions and habit to speak our minds make us natural allies.
In fact, one of the first people to settle in Texas was a Serbian named Dorde Sagic, or George Fischer as he was known in the U.S. After settling in Texas, Sagic went on to become a justice of the peace in my hometown of Houston.
But Serbia has contributed much more to the cause of justice than just Mr. Sagic keeping the early streets of Houston safe. Today we honor the service of Serbia’s armed forces who have fought side-by-side with Americans to preserve justice during history’s most horrific conflicts.
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech marking the fourth anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia. Speaking of the bravery of the Serbian armed forces, President Wilson said: ‘‘Nobly did they respond. So valiantly and courageous did they oppose the forces of a country ten times greater in population and resources. . . While their territory has been devastated and their homes despoiled, the spirit of the Serbian people has not been broken.’’
As a Texan, I admire such defiance against overwhelming odds. Like President Wilson, I am proud to share the stories of Serbia’s bravery here in Washington. I believe the most meaningful for Americans is the story of the Halyard Mission during the dark days of the Second World War.
While under Nazi-occupation, the Serbian people demonstrated their bravery as they played a crucial role in the largest rescue operation of American airmen in history. In 1944, American bombers were flying frequent missions to strike Germany’s vital oil supplies in Romania as part of the allied advance into Europe.
The 15th Air Force led this effort by launching nearly 20,000 sorties into Eastern Europe, with many of the missions flying over Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. As many as 1,500 pilots and airmen were shot down during these courageous air raids.
Serbians, who had been resisting German forces since 1941, risked their own lives to rescue American aircrews and hide them from patrolling Nazis. For months these brave and noble Serbians cared for and protected American and allied pilots.
By August 1944, the allied forces, including the 15th Air Force and Office of Strategic Services, devised a daring operation to evacuate the hundreds of allied pilots being sheltered by the Serbian resistance. American aircraft flew into enemy territory and evacuated these airmen from an air field built and protected by local Serbians near the village of Pranjani.
For over 60 years this operation was kept secret. But now we can remember the courage of our Serbian friends and say thank you. The spirit of the Halyard mission still lives on today as a remarkable story of resistance and heroism.
As was the case in both World Wars, Serbia and the U.S. still face shared threats. About 600 foreign fighters in Syria have come from the Balkan states. ISIS and Al-Qaeda terrorists present a threat to Serbia and the region just as they present a threat to the U.S.
We must continue to coordinate with our Serbian partners to stop returning terrorists and neutralize networks that recruit fighters in the Balkans. The U.S. is also working with Serbia to improve its independent judiciary and fight corruption.
A democratic Serbia with a strong rule of law is in America’s interests. But there are others who do not share this goal.
Russian disinformation efforts are designed to keep Serbia in its sphere of influence and poison our warming friendship. Nevertheless, Serbia’s integration to the West has continued to move forward.
In 2006, Serbia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and, in 2015, signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan with the alliance to strengthen cooperation. Recently the European Union announced that Serbia could join the EU as early as 2025.
I applaud this step which will strengthen Belgrade’s political institutions and economic ties with the West. Together we share the same dreams of a bright and free future for both our countries.
We are blessed to have brave men and women that ensure our futures are bright and free. Thank you to the Serbian armed forces for standing with America in the wars of the past and in the challenges we will face together in the future.
And that’s just the way it is.