NORFOLK, Va. -- The Hampton Roads community honored its long standing connection with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by celebrating the annual Norfolk NATO Festival June 5.
Throughout the day on Saturday, some 3,000 people rang in the return of the longest continuously running festival in Hampton Roads.
The festival brings together NATO and the Hampton Roads region in this annual tradition to provide the local community and visitors the opportunity to learn about the Alliance and the two commands that call Norfolk home.
"Well, it's an extraordinary and delightful experience, once again, to be downtown Norfolk with NATO celebrating the fantastic partnership we have with the city," said Vice Admiral Paul Bennett, Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander Transformation.
After a year without the event, this year's theme was "Stronger Together."
"When you work together and when you live as a community, as we do here in Norfolk you see firsthand, you see your children with the children of fellow NATO members. It's incredible. And that's what really makes the bond. It's that personal connection of all of us together," said Lieutenant Colonel George Vriniotis.
It's also personal for veteran, Stan Walker. He said he makes the trip from Jacksonville, North Carolina every year.
"I was in the infantry in the Marine Corps for 23 years," Walker said. "We've done operations when I was in the Marine Corp with just about every nation out here."
While the festival looked a little different due to COVID-19 restrictions, only lasting one day, Walker said he still enjoyed the weekend.
NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation General André Lanata kicked off the festivities at the annual Flag Raising Ceremony alongside Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Alexander, and Joint Force Command Norfolk Commander Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis.
During the ceremony, NATO’s 30 Member Nations presented their national flags, while the United States Fleet Forces Band performed a cultural sampling of music, a demonstration of the diversity and strength of the NATO Alliance.
"You're seeing 30 nations working together to deliver security to over a billion people in North America, Canda and across Europe," said Vice Admiral Bennett. "Without working together we don't have the political or military power and support to be able to achieve that."
Vice Admiral Bennett's message was important as visitors watched the ceremony and walked around the International Village.
As Norfolk is home to NATO's only two commands on the continent, the significance of the festival wasn't lost.
"There's always going to be challenges going forward but as long as we work together and we focus on what makes us strong as a united front, we can meet any challenge going forward," said Lt. Col. Vriniotis.
The Norfolk NATO Festival Committee hopes to return to the normal festival format in 2022.