DEBELJAK, Croatia — Amidst a sea of Croatian boys and girls smiling and waving miniature U.S. flags, Maj. Gen. Frank Kisner, U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) commander, was given a warm welcome during his second visit to the small village of Debeljak.
In a show of appreciation on behalf of the United States, Kisner gave a projector as an educational gift to the village's elementary school in honor of Croatian-born Master Sgt. Ivica Jerak, a U.S. Special Forces soldier who died in 2005 during combat operations in Iraq.
Jerak was born in the village of Debeljak and his family still resides there. His last assignment was as an assistant team sergeant assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"I want to thank you for letting us cause a little excitement in your school today," Kisner said as he greeted the town's mayor, school principal and elementary students. "It's a privilege to come back and honor a man who is a hero both in Croatia and the United States."
SOCEUR, in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Croatia and U.S. European Command, previously dedicated renovations to four classrooms, a playground and two basketball courts as part of a humanitarian assistance mission to honor Jerak in March. After the initial project was completed, there was some funding left over and the U.S. Embassy in Croatia contacted the school to see what else they needed. The principal requested a projector so the students could watch educational films to enhance their learning.
"I was positively surprised when I was asked on behalf of America's armed forces, that they wanted to honor our fallen soldier in this way," said Branimir Pericic, principal of the Debeljak elementary school. "Every gift the Americans have given us has been welcomed and the children are definitely appreciative, especially since we are a small town."
As the ceremony was coming to an end, there was one Special Forces soldier in attendance to whom the ceremony had a personal significance because he knew and served with Jerak.
"This was an important gesture to honor Ivica. He was born here and went to school here. It's a sign by the United States to show its appreciation for his sacrifice and to cherish his memory," said Lt. Col. Chris Buzatu, a SOCEUR exercise planner. "It gives me great satisfaction because this is what I signed up for. Special Forces is a combat multiplier, but we also bring people together and it's part of our job to interact with the local population and give back to the community."
As he reflected on the man he called a friend, Buzatu added, "This is a very humbling moment for me. I'm just humbled to be here to honor him."