Admiral Foggo, Your Excellencies, Ministers, General Officers, members of NATO Headquarters Sarajevo, friends and everyone else who I haven’t already mentioned.
Good Morning. Thank you for being here. To say that this has been an incredible posting would be an understatement.
Since arriving in July 2018, I have spent my time in BiH meeting with leaders, soldiers, politicians, citizens, students, deans, diplomats, most anyone who wanted to talk about the Armed Forces of BiH, the Defense and Security Sector, gender equality, leadership, being a female leader or just NATO in general.
U.S. Navy Adm. James Foggo, Allied Joint Force Command Naples commander, center, stands with U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Marti Bissell, outgoing commander of NATO Headquarters Sarajevo, respectively, during a transfer of authority ceremony at the Army Hall, Dec. 12, 2019, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bissell commanded the unit for nearly 18 months before transferring her authority to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William J. Edwards, who is a career infantry officer in the U.S. Army and member of the Oregon National Guard. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victor J. Caputo)
I have learned a lot about many things during my time here, but most importantly I learned a lot about BiH, the Balkans region, resilience, professionalism and freedom.
I have learned that BiH is an incredible country, with beautiful mountains, endless vineyards that produce wonderful wines, ripe tomatoes, warm bread, all kinds of tasty food and is populated by welcoming and friendly people, who are resilient, educated and want what everyone wants, a safe, prosperous country where they can raise their families and have a fulfilling life.
I have learned the Balkans region is a region steeped in history and whose history not only shaped BiH’s past but continues to influence its future. The Balkans is an intersection of cultures that has combined to create a country that is incredibly rich in history, architecture and beliefs. Sarajevo is one of the few cities in the world, where, within a very short distance, you can find, almost next to each other, a Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox church, a Muslim mosque and a Jewish synagogue and where ALL are welcome. No matter where I went, and despite, being the “NATO” Commander, people were always willing to sit down, have a cup of coffee or a glass of Rakia and talk about BiH and what we can do together, to make BiH better.
I have come understand the true meaning of resiliency after listening to story after story of individuals who survived the 92’-95’ Balkans War. You cannot drive anywhere in this country without seeing the lasting impact of those dark days. In many ways, it is pall that continues to cover the entire country that BiH hasn’t quite broken free of yet. And yet, I will never forget the stories and the individuals who took the time to tell me of those times.
Of students who, despite the siege, were expected to carry on with their studies. Of fathers who walked miles including through the tunnel to bring back 40 kilos of supplies for his family and newborn child. Of Soldiers on the front line and mothers who lost husbands and sons. I stood on hilltops as soldiers described to me what it was like hold the hilltop and listened to daughters relay how they survived after the loss of their mother or father. I listened to two soldiers who once fought against each other and now stand side by side committed to defending BiH together.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Marti Bissell, outgoing commander of NATO Headquarters Sarajevo, passes the unit guidon to U.S. Navy Adm. James Foggo, Allied Joint Force Command Naples commander, during a transfer of authority ceremony at the Army Hall, Dec. 12, 2019, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bissell relinquished her command after almost 18 months in Bosnia-Herzegovina to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William J. Edwards during the ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victor J. Caputo)
The stories would fluctuate from heartbreaking to humorous and I was moved by each and every one of them, I would offer BiH is still demonstrating its resiliency. I have met soldiers with only one uniform, little or no equipment but still stand proudly as a BiH soldier and walk me through buildings in need of repair or show me equipment that is no longer serviceable and tell me how they are preparing to help during the next flood or natural disaster. I have been briefed by officers and leaders doing what they can despite having little or no resources in a country where politicians regularly refer to them as incapable and poorly trained when in reality, they are underfunded and underpaid.
After 17 months in BiH, I have yet to meet those soldiers that those politicians are referring to. I have never met an incapable or poorly trained BiH soldier, only under-resourced and underpaid. The soldiers I know demonstrated to me, that despite an insufficient budget, political stalemates and stonewalling, each and every day, they wake up, put on their uniform and prepare to support and defend BiH, despite the conditions that they are working under. And, that is the definition of resiliency.
I have learned a lot about professionalism and what it means to a professional soldier in BiH. I come from a place where the military is one of the most trusted organizations in the country. Where I can walk down the street in my uniform and I am thanked for my service. I have been to restaurants and had someone pay for my lunch or cup of coffee, merely because I serve. It’s easy to be a professional soldier when your country recognizes the value and contribution you bring to your country and the sacrifices you make in order to serve.
But, in BiH, it is different. Each and every soldier, at some time is going to hit a political wall that hinders his or her ability to serve, because of nothing more than how they spell their name. And yet, despite the political shenanigans; the lack of willingness to work for a common solution at levels above the Armed Forces of BiH; the soldiers of the Armed Forces are consummate professionals. Irrespective of political pressure and games played with the budget, contracts and tenders, they are one Army, all three constituent people working side by side. The Armed Forces of BiH is a success story and one that BiH should be very proud of. The AFBiH are professional and capable soldiers doing the best they can with what they have been given.
U.S. Navy Adm. James Foggo, Allied Joint Force Command Naples commander, pins the Defense Superior Service Medal on U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Marti Bissell, outgoing commander of NATO Headquarters, during a transfer of authority ceremony at the Army Hall, Dec. 12, 2019, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bissell relinquished her command after almost 18 months in Bosnia-Herzegovina to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William J. Edwards during the ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victor J. Caputo)
One need only visit the 2nd Helicopter Squadron in Ralojvac to see resiliency and professionalism in action. Despite not receiving many spare parts over the years, broken tools, no heat in the hangar, not enough uniforms, these outstanding soldiers put their lives on the line every day supporting firefighting, medical emergencies, and natural disasters affecting all of BiH. They help everyone, regardless of ethnicity.
Or how about the 6th Brigade in Banja Luka who needs assistance in finding water rescue equipment so they will be ready for the next flood. A Brigade Commander who recognized his unit was ill prepared. So, on his own, he has partnered with a local rafting club to train his soldiers for water emergencies. These are not commanders asking for the moon, just basic equipment and support so they can do what they need to do help all of the citizens of BiH and yet, the politicians continually fail to provide them the resources they need so they are finding other ways to get the job done and thereby demonstrating every day what it means to a professional soldier.
And, last, but not least, I have learned what freedom means in ways I have taken for granted. In my country, no one looks at my last name and tells me how I have to vote or where I need to live. That I have the ability to apply for any job knowing I will not be asked about which political party I am affiliated with so therefore I do not have to worry if it will affect whether or not I will get the job. When I vote, no one, not even my husband, knows how I vote and especially not anyone I work for. My children go to school with children from parents who belong to a different political party, practice a different religion and trace their heritage to different places in the world.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Marti Bissell, outgoing commander of NATO Headquarters Sarajevo, gives a speech during a transfer of authority ceremony at the Army Hall, Dec. 12, 2019, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bissell relinquished her command after almost 18 months in Bosnia-Herzegovina to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William J. Edwards during the ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victor J. Caputo)
I would offer that in order for BiH to move forward, it must free itself from the past. Every country in the world has known conflict and citizens have been lost. NATO was established for one purpose - to secure peace, to promote cooperation and to guard freedom. Not to promote conflict but to prevent it. Twenty-nine soon to be thirty nations standing together to promote peace, prosperity, individual rights and ensure security for all.
Joining NATO is always a choice, not a demand. It is a choice made by a country and NATO respects every country’s sovereignty and right to determine its future. As I depart BiH, I am more and more convinced, that every BiH citizen wants those same things… peace, prosperity, the freedom to choose, the freedom to vote and to live in a country where their family can be safe and secure.
As I end my time as the Commander of NATO Headquarters – Sarajevo, I will miss the friends I have made, the food and wine that makes this country special, and treasure the memories of an incredible country with so much potential and opportunity, but a country that must focus on looking to the future without forgetting or attempting to rewrite the past. I look forward to serving with all of you again in some future place as we work together to keep the world safe and secure for all. It has been an incredible experience and one of the most fulfilling in my career.