BASTOGNE, Belgium - Three signatures formalized decades of friendship between the U.S. military, local residents and a Belgian army unit Dec. 12, a unique twist to traditional stateside U.S. Army Community Covenants.

U.S. Army Garrison Benelux commander James Drago, Bastogne Mayor Philippe Collard and Belgian army 1st Field Artillery Regiment Commander Lt. Col. Henri Badot-Bertrand pledged closer cooperation and cultural exchange among their organizations through a partnership charter.

"Through the many years, USAG Benelux and its preceding units have participated in many ceremonies with Bastogne representatives, veterans and Soldiers of the 1st Field Artillery regiment," said Drago during the ceremony. "Our partnership is a natural continuation of this deep, imbibing friendship. I am honored to stand before you today with my signature as one of three on this formal partnership proclamation."

The Community Covenant is an Army program designed to enhance ties between U.S. service members and communities across America. USAG Benelux officials applied that principle within their European footprint, highlighting a historic bond between the town of Bastogne and U.S. troops dating back to World War II's Battle of the Bulge.

"Dear American friends, on behalf of the city of Bastogne, I thank you for being here today to show our common attachment through the values of peace and democracy," said Collard, amid the festivities of the town's commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. "(On this day) I hope that you have the message of my predecessors for 65 years while translating the gratitude of our cooperation toward these young American Soldiers who lost their lives on our ground, so that we could enjoy freedom today."

Evidence of the three-way partnership has been seen for many years, Drago said. The USAG Benelux color guard has carried the national colors of Belgium and America during official ceremonies, he explained, while the Bastogne-based 1st Field Artillery Regiment has paraded individual flags of U.S. states.

"Our friendship extends further still," he said. "Now a Soldier from the Belgian unit marches alongside the U.S. Soldiers, forming one team - one USAG Benelux color guard.

Recent partnership events between the two units have included marching side-by-side during military training, competing in M-16 firing drills and participating in a celebration of the artillerymen's patron saint.

Throughout Bastogne, tributes to American troops are displayed prominently, including monuments to two U.S. generals who have become folk heroes in the region - George Patton and Anthony McAuliffe. The town fosters a carnival-like atmosphere each December on the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, with an outpouring of gratitude for U.S. service members.

"This charter is an opportunity to maintain very good contact with the people of America and with our liberators," said Philippe Collignon, a school teacher and alderman in Bastogne. "To us, the men and women of the USAG Benelux are the representatives of their people and a conduit to the folks in America. Their presence at every one of our events shows us that they too appreciate us."

Collignon supervises Bastogne's youth, sports, morale and cultural events. His duties include the planning and supervision of every official commemoration.

"Bastogne takes the duty of memory very seriously," he said. "We are grateful to the people of America and do not want to miss one single opportunity to remind all generations of the sacrifices the American nation made to free us from the oppressors.

"We will not allow anyone to forget," he said emphatically.

[Marie-Lise Baneton, USAG Benelux Public Affairs Officer, contributed to this story]

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16