SOKO BANJA, Serbia — Soldiers of the 1194th Engineer Company wake up early in the morning, get dressed in their clean but still mortar covered uniforms, and step out the door. From there they are greeted by a scenic view of the mountains, a lake, gardens and numerous local townspeople, who frequently express their gratitude in gifts of food and drinks. For the 1194th, it's just another day on the job.
Soldiers of the 1194th Engineer Company, Airmen of the 200th RED HORSE (Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers) and members of the Serbian Armed Forces are scattered across Serbia, tasked with the renovation of public schools in Soko Banja, Lapavo and Prokuplje from August until school starts on Sept. 1.
"We're taking off old mortar and putting on new and restoring the school for the children." said Spc. Raymond Lohr of the 1194th.
The Ohio Army National Guard carpenter with 22 years of service said he feels at home in Serbia. They make me feel like family."
The Soldiers tasked with rebuilding the Mitropolit Mihailo primary school in Soko Banja are not alone in their endeavor to help the Serbian people. Everyday the locals come to the work site and assist the soldiers in repairing the facade and increasing the structural integrity of the building.
Lohr said a 62-year-old mason they call "Dragon" comes to the work site and teaches others how to lay mortar. "The whole village has helped us," he said.
But no more than five meters from the school in repair, the local children gather daily on the basketball court to play and interact with the soldiers.
Spc. Theodore Venable of the 1194th said the unit's reception by the Serbian people was warm and welcoming. "Many people offer to take time out of their day to show us around," he said.
Soko Banja Mayor Dimitrije Lukicc wanted to show his appreciation to the soldiers by providing them the opportunity to meet the children they were helping. With parents, teachers and an assortment of invited media, the children who will be attending the school in September greeted both the American soldiers and Serbian soldiers with smiles and drawings they had made as thank you cards.
"They are very humble and family-oriented, they even love taking care of those they don't know," Venable said of the Serbian people.
"It's all about breaking down walls," said Dejan Nikolic, a member of the Serbian National Parliament. "It's a good picture when you see our soldiers and your soldiers working together."
In an effort to help foster the relationship between Serbia and the United States, Nikolic invited the soldiers of the 1194th working in Soko Banja to play in a basketball tournament during their August in August celebration.
The celebration is a monthlong tournament of tennis, soccer, basketball and volleyball, with over 500 participants in each sport and thousands of spectators throughout the tournament. The 10-year-old tradition is rooted in a political parody, sponsored by the democratic party, local municipality and private sponsors who bring teams together to play as well as arrange for DJs to play music and host, and referees to officiate games.
Among this wild and bustling community, a few American soldiers clad in U.S. Army physical training uniforms and a Serbian soldier played the opening basketball game of the tournament. Though the American and Serbian soldiers lost the game to a local team, they have won the hearts of the community.
"We are grateful and hopeful we can continue breaking down the walls." Nikolic said.