By Master Sgt. Brian Bahret, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa Public Affairs
/ Published May 15, 2015
MINSK, Belarus (AFNS) -- In a show of solidarity, U.S., Belarusian and Russian military forces set aside politics May 9 to honor World War II veterans during a Victory Day Parade in Minsk, Belarus.
Thirty-four Airmen from the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Band marched with more than 5,000 Belarusian armed forces and Russian soldiers to commemorate the shared sacrifices of the World War II Allies and the end of hostilities 70 years ago. The band's participation was the first time a U.S. military unit has participated in Belarus' Victory Day Parade, according to the U.S. Embassy.
"For many years, this holiday has only been celebrated by Belarusians and Russians," said Scott Roland, the U.S. Embassy Minsk Chargé d'affaires. "The diplomatic corps was ecstatic to see the Americans in this parade. They agreed we should all be doing this -- we should be showing that this was a joint victory. The band helped make that point."
Republic of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko echoed Roland's sentiments during a speech at the start of the parade.
"The leaders of the countries of the anti-Hitler coalition succeeded in bridging all differences and together defeated fascism," Lukashenko said. "I think it is truly symbolic that representatives of the Russian and United States' armed forces will march with Belarusian servicemen in the parade."
More than 600,000 people lined the streets to watch the parade, according to Belarus state media. In addition to the soldiers, more than 300 pieces of military equipment from Russia and Belarus, including tanks, helicopters, fighter aircraft, transportation aircraft and bombers were featured.
Lt. Col. Michael Mench, the USAFE Band commander, said the band's visit to Belarus was a unique experience.
"I can't think of anything else we've done like this," Mench said. "I grew up during the Cold War, and I've seen the parades in Moscow with all the soldiers, all of the high-stepping and all of the weaponry. Never did I think that I would be part of a parade like that."
Before the parade, the band performed a concert in Brest and toured Brest Hero-Fortress Memorial Complex. The Airmen stood witness as Roland and Mench paid tribute in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Brest Hero-Fortress Memorial Complex's Eternal Flame. Next, the band traveled to Minsk where they toured the Great Patriotic War Musem and conducted a concert at its entrance.
"Coming here for this parade, and learning the history about what the Republic of Belarus suffered through during World War II -- losing one (out of) four (people) in the country to war -- was sobering," Mench said. "The young men and women who marched in the parade and the advancement of technology, are only here because of the sacrifices of the men and women -- the one-in-four people in the Republic of Belarus -- who perished while trying to save their country.
"What we saw in the parade is only possible because of what veterans have done for us," he continued. "This parade was a massive tribute to them. Belarus honors us by inviting us to the parade, and we honor their veterans by marching in it."
Maria Savitskaya watched the parade in Minsk, her hometown, and attended the band's concert at the Great Patriotic War Museum, which showcases the countries’ efforts in World War II.
"It was very surprising to know the (U.S.) Air Force was going to participate," said Savitskaya, who attended the concert with her mother. "We were very pleased to learn this news because of the politics. We're very glad it's warming up now; the fact that the band came is big progress."
She said both of her grandfathers were veterans of the war.
"The stories of their heroic deeds have been told in our family and they've been remembered," Savitskaya said. "For us, this is very special. People who fight in the war defending their motherland are all heroes."
Mench said the USAFE bandsmen didn't know what to expect during their preparation for visit.
"Belarus is still a very Eastern Bloc country," Mench said. "Coming to Belarus, we had no idea what it was going to be like."
He said initially he had apprehensions and concerns that were based on preconceived impressions.
"We really wanted to come to Belarus and play and share a little of our culture with the people of Belarus, and hope that they would share some culture with us," Mench said. "I think what made it so unbelievable is that they did."
Mench said his concerns quickly melted away with the band's first concert in Brest. World War II veterans, armed forces of Belarus soldiers and Brest residents were among the 2,000 people who attended the event.
"Everybody stayed through the rain, and in the end they were clapping in rhythm with the music," Mench said.
During the concert, the USAFE Band performed multiple pieces from European and American composers. They also performed a medley of Belarusian folk songs, which helped them connect with the audience. By the time the band closed the concert with two Glen Miller songs, any cultural barriers that may have been present were long gone, Mench said.
After the performance, the bandsmen met with the audience and, according to Mench, "we were mobbed."
He said the Belarusians welcomed them with open arms asking questions, taking photos and sharing their stories.
"From that moment," he said, "we realized that Belarus is a very special country, with very special people and that we were going to be able to connect with them."