LAPOVO, Serbia - Troops from the Ohio National Guard awaken in the rolling hills of this rural town with a mission of making a difference in the lives of local students. They are refurbishing the Svetozar Markovic elementary school here alongside Serbian army engineers.
It is, however, the memories they are creating within the school's walls-also serving as their shared living quarters-that are making a difference as they form friendships that will last a lifetime. The Ohio National Guard deployed 39 Soldiers and Airmen from Army and Air National Guard engineer units to three locations in Serbia to complete humanitarian assistance projects. The troops have been working side-by-side with their Serbian counterparts at all three sites since early August. However, the troops at Lapovo are not only working together, but also living together in the schoolhouse during the renovation. The somewhat forced intimacy is helping both U.S. and Serbian troops form bonds they will never forget.
"Things are going fine. We are having some good times here; working hard during the day but at night making some good friendships," said Pfc. Ljubisav Grkovic, a Serbian army engineer.
During the day, the troops have been busy rebuilding the school's facade, installing new lighting and flooring, painting classrooms, replacing toilets, repairing electrical wiring and a number of other interior projects. They have learned from each other every step of the project and have formed a solid partnership to accomplish their tasks.
This partnership has proven to be invaluable in accomplishing the work they've completed together. The hard work will make a much better learning environment for the children; the principal, teachers and local community members are pleased with everything the troops have accomplished.
"It has been a very good experience and we are all very pleased with the work they have done," said Maja Jovanovic, an elementary school teacher.
It is during the evening, however, that they spend time with their counterparts and locals from the community playing basketball, sharing food, exchanging stories, sharing family photos and working to break down communication barriers. Community members have also embraced the U.S. service members, welcoming them into their homes, families and traditions. The warm welcome from the community and Serbian soldiers has made an impact on the Ohio National Guard members that will last a lifetime.
"This partnership has definitely been a success. The community here is amazing," said Spc. Robert L. Hodge of the Ohio Army National Guard's 1194th Engineer Company. "This is a great mission. It is one of the best things I've done with the Army. I'm going to make relationships and friends that I'm never going to forget."