A Virginia city parades its support for NATO

With bands playing and onlookers cheering, the NATO Parade of Nations steps off each spring through the streets not of Brussels — NATO’s headquarters — but of Norfolk, Virginia, a historic naval town that takes pride in its role in keeping the trans-Atlantic alliance strong.

Military members marching in parade and carrying flags (U.S. Navy/Abraham Essenmacher)
Military members from more than two dozen NATO countries carry their countries’ flags through a parade in Norfolk, Virginia. (U.S. Navy/Abraham Essenmacher)

NATO first established a strategic command center in Norfolk, home to the world’s largest naval base, in 1953. At an April 28, 2017, flag-raising ceremony, French Air Force General Denis Mercier, NATO’s supreme allied commander transformation, said NATO “has proven to be a bedrock of security, both for Europe and for the United States.”

Local citizens and businesses, along with Virginia’s economic development arm, spend nearly $250,000 each year on the festival and other activities celebrating NATO and what the alliance has done for nearly seven decades to make the world a safer place.

Military members marching and saluting (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Italian officers salute during the parade through Norfolk, Virginia. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Originally focused on maritime security in the Atlantic, the command center in Norfolk saw its mission change after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Allied Command Transformation, as it’s called, was tasked with rethinking NATO’s military structure, testing concepts and conducting training. It is one of only two NATO strategic centers. Allied Command Operations in Mons, Belgium, plans and executes all military operations.

Among its staff are military officers from almost every NATO nation. Each spring, many spend weekends sprucing up colorful parade floats that showcase their homelands’ history and cultures, such as replicas of the Eiffel Tower, a castle and a Viking boat.

“It’s the only such festival in the world,” said Jeff Maisey, who publishes an arts, food and culture magazine and is past chair of the festival’s volunteer board. “There’s no other event whose mission is to highlight and celebrate the trans-Atlantic alliance.”

Alex Pincus, an attorney for the city and a festival organizer, said the celebration brings out local families like his with European ancestry. His mother is from Norway.

People riding parade float shaped like boat (U.S. Navy/Abraham Essenmacher)
The Sons of Norway Viking boat in the NATO parade is worked on by a local Norwegian-American group alongside NATO families each spring. (U.S. Navy/Abraham Essenmacher)

The festival “is a labor of love,” Pincus said. “It’s important for Americans to know these countries in NATO have the United States’ back, just as we … have theirs.”

Aircraft flying in formation and streaming colored smoke trails (NATO/Paolo Giordano)
Patrouille de France, the French Air Force aerobatic team, performed during the NATO festival. (NATO/Paolo Giordano)

General Mercier shares that sentiment.

“In a world increasingly dangerous and unpredictable, having friends and allies is critical,” Mercier said.

This story was originally published May 25, 2017.