By Fr. Vazken Movsesian
Main Photo Caption: At the Crash site monument: Fr. Vazken, Anna Galachyan (assisting Fr. Vazken), Yeretsgin Hripsime & Fr. Tade with one of their daughter’s Tatev.
Last summer, our Diocesan Primate Archbishop Hovnan Derderian assigned me to an event at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. I was to deliver the keynote address at a gathering commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the shoot-down of US Air Force C-130 #60528. The hosts and organizers of the event were members of the Prop Wash Gang. Before going any further… let’s get the obvious questions out of the way: Why a priest of the Armenian Church? … at a US Air Force base? …to hundreds of servicemen and their families? So first, let’s back up 60 years…
In 1958 – during the height of the Cold War – a United States Air Force C-130 flying a reconnaissance mission on the Turkish/Armenian border was shot down by the Soviets. The plane crashed in the village of Sasnashen, Armenia and lost its entire crew of 17 servicemen. The Soviets did not admit to the severity of the tragedy until after the fall of the USSR and by 1992 – some 34 years after the incident – the remains of all 17 men were returned to the United States for proper recognition and committal. Since that time commemorations have been taken place, including the placing of a khatchkar (cross stone) and a monument at the crash site with visits by U.S. military and government officials.
Now… on the evening of September 2, 2018, exactly 60 years to the date of the crash I stood before the servicemen and their families. I explained that in 1958 Armenia was completely occupied, that is, the place where the C-130 took-off (Van) was in Armenia occupied by the Turks and that where the plane crashed was occupied by the Soviets. After speaking about Armenian history and our faith as Christian, there in Nebraska, I offered the requiem hymn and prayer of the Armenian Church for the souls of the 17 victims of the shoot-down.
The group honored me by giving me a framed piece of the tail of the fallen plane. Then, spontaneously they took up a collection and asked that I use the money to benefit the children of Sasnashen. Here, I had to confess that I did not know where Sasnashen was but I also promised that from this point on I would not travel to Armenia without visiting the village which had brought us and tied us together 60 years after the tragedy.
On October 25, 2018, I made it to the village of Sasnanshen – about 65km out of Yerevan toward the Northwest border of Armenia. The closest town is Talin (about 10 kms away) with a population of about 4,000. Through our Armenian Church I connected with Fr. Tadé Tamazyan, the priest of the Talin and a number of villages that surround the Town, one of those villages being Sasnashen (population 750). My deacon Hrayr Nalbandian, drove us up to there and together with the priest we climbed a rocky road to the crash-site where a monument stands in this remote and obscure corner of the world. It is a tall standing memorial with a plaque written in both Armenian and English:
September 2, 1958
We must never forget that freedom is never really free. It is the most costly thing in the world.
Freedom is never paid in a lump sum. Installments come due in every generation.
All any of us can do is offer the generations that follow a chance for freedom.
There, under the open skies and the silence of the village we offered a prayer for the 17 fallen servicemen as well as a prayer for peace.
In Sasnashen, beyond the economic challenges of village life, there are few, if any, opportunities for young people to advance in education, or even to explore and exploit their potential. There are government schools but after school-hours and on weekends the children end up on the rural roads without supervision and/or guidance. Father Tadé has access to the schools and offers weekly classes to children in the village schools and is known and recognized youth. We decided to use the Prop Wash Gang funds to further opportunities for youth in the Sasnashen village by creating a Center for after school-hours, where young people can feel welcome, share and explore options to maximize their potential in life.
With the encouragement and blessing of Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, the Primate of the Western Diocese we quickly began work on organizing this program called “Sasnashen Youth Center.” The Catholicos of All Armenians, HH Kareken II gave a small house directly across the street from the Talin church with the understanding that it would be used as a gathering place for youth. The collected funds were used to bring the house up to standards for a meeting place. We repaired the plumbing, installed a kitchenette, lavatory and new windows. We have been monitoring the renovation process via pictures and videos sent to us by Fr. Tadé.
On July 18, 2019 I personally made a trip to the area to monitor progress and meet with Fr. Tadé and others to discuss the program. I also met with the head of the Aragatsotn Diocesan, Bishop Mkrtich Proshyan to assure a proper working relationship between all of our parties. He officially pronounced the name of this project as Sasnashen Youth Center and we are scheduled to open on September 29, 2019. It will be dedicated in the name of the servicemen who perished in the village in 1958. A framed piece of the plane will be presented to the Center at that time.
This is a place where young people can first and foremost feel welcome, safe and loved. It is a gathering place to study, to learn, or merely congregate after school. We furnished the room and provided computers with internet connections so that we can visit remotely. Fr. Tadé plans to bring speakers and mentors with specialties to direct and share time with the kids.
If successful, this can be a pilot project which can be replicated in villages for a low cost and can take advantage of local resources – personnel and physical spaces – which are often overlooked. In this case, those resources were found in the apartment/house which was vacant and unused because of its condition and a priest who has unique access and connection to the young people.
Opportunities to help others are God given. Our Church is the vehicle by which we do our work. I thank Archbishop Hovnan for giving me this opportunity to engage with brothers and sisters in Christ in the village of Sasnashen. From the grave tragedy of the 1958 shoot-down a new beginning and opportunity for education is extended to the children of that village. Before leaving the village we had an opportunity to pray together at the church in Talin. There, we also offered prayers for the repose of the souls of the servicemen as well as Deacon Hrayr Nalbandian, who shared in our first connection with the community.
Published – 3 October 2019
(Photo Caption: from Left to Right) Yn. Talin and Fr. Haroutiun Tachejian, Yn. Susan and Fr. Vazken Movsesian, Fr. Tadé and Yn. Hripsimé Takhmazian in front of the plaque with the names of the fallen service man and a framed piece of the plane which was shot down on September 2, 1958.
By Fr. Vazken Movsesian
On September 29, 2019, with the blessings of His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, we ventured off to the town of Talin for the opening of the Sasnashen Youth Center. This was the culmination of a year’s worth of planning and organization across the globe, with limited resources, difficult communications and the challenges of a cold winter that put our work on hold for several months. Nevertheless, the power of prayer, the joy of helping children and our commitment to the project made it a labor of love that was celebrated by a community in this remote part of Armenia.
I have been writing and speaking about the remarkable chain of events that brought about this project. Quickly, the story begins at the height of the Cold War, mid 20th century and picks up when this Armenian priests makes a connection at the US Air Force base in Nebraska with members of the Prop Wash Gang. We shared the story of the US Air Force C-130 60528 shoot down, when in 1958, seventeen servicemen perished as their plane came down in Sasnashen, Armenia. For a refresher on the details, check out my blog from last year. https://armodoxy.blogspot.com/2018/09/reflections-on-sasnashen-shoot-down.html
Then came a proposal by the members of the Prop Wash Gang: Here’s an amount of money we have collected. Can you see to it that the kids in Sasnashen are helped in some way? I have to admit, when they asked me I had no idea where in Armenia to find Sasnashen. In fact, so obscure is this village of 700+ inhabitants that I could not find anyone, especially taxi drivers in Yerevan, who knew where to locate it either. Finally, thanks to Google maps and my deacon, Hrayr Nalbandian, we made it there. Sasnashen is about 10km outside of the town of Talin, which is about an hour’s drive out of Yerevan. Calling on an Armenian priest,* Fr. Tadé Takhmazian, who serves the population of Sasnashen and nine-other villages, I began to learn about the needs of the community, people and especially the youth. We decided to work on creating a youth center – a safe place for young people to feel belonging, learn, grow and mature in faith as productive members of the community.
*I cold-called Fr. Tadé from a number given to me by one of my clergy brothers who had met him only months early. Note: I don’t believe in coincidences or in chance. I believe in blessings, which I have defined as luck, without the element of chance. Fr. Tadé is a blessing.
We found a house in Talin owned by the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. The house was in need of major repair, but at least it was a space which would serve our purposes. Between Fr. Tadé, myself and a handful of local volunteers we cleaned, renovated, painted and bought furniture to make this house conducive for our youth-center purposes. In July, I went and oversaw the final touches. At the time I presented an update: http://www.wdacna.com/news/1632/Discovering…-Sasnashen-Village-in-the-Town-of-Talin,-Armenia-A-place-for-kids-to-feel-welcome,-share-and-explore-options-to-maximize-their-potential
And now… September 29, we held the opening of the Sasnashen Youth Center in Talin.
Along with a contingent from our Bible Study group in Glendale we made the journey, 12 time-zones away, to celebrate this new project. We joined the St. James pilgrimage organized by Fr. Haroutioun Tachejian, visiting many of the historic and spiritually significant sites in Armenia. Together, with the St. James group, about 25 of us from America attended this opening.
I was honored to celebrate the Divine Liturgy that morning at the Holy Asdvadzadzin church in Talin. It was the feast day of the Cross of Varak and so I offered an ookhdi badarak and so directed my sermon to the needs of the community and the crosses we all carry.
Following the service in church, Fr. Tadé led us to the newly renovated house and we officially dedicated and opened it as the Sasnashen Youth Center with a ribbon cutting ceremony. I offered the warmest greetings of His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian who has set the vision for our involvement in Armenia at this level. In turn Fr. Tadé thanked the local primate, His Grace Bishop Mkrtich Broshyan, for granting this opportunity for expansion.
For this occasion the Prop Wash Gang sent a shadow box which contains a piece of the wreckage of the C-130 that was shot-down by the Soviet Union. As part of the dedication, the shadow box and a plaque listing the names of the 17 servicemen who were killed on September 2, 1958 now adorns the wall of the Center as a permanent reminder of the tragedy.
We were honored to have with us Maksena Haroutiunyan, widow of the late internationally renown sculptor Martin Kakosian. As an 18 year-old young man, Martin Kakosian was an eye-witness to the shoot down. He was instrumental in the dedication of the original khatchkar which stood as a marker for the tragedy until later, when he designed and constructed the current monument which stands on a hill near the crash site in Sasnashen. Mrs. Haroutiunyan shared a stirring account of what had transpired, recollections that her husband had shared with her, and spoke of the need to never forget the tragedy that befell the servicemen on 1958. She brought pictures and was available to the attendees to discuss the circumstances of the shoot-down.
The one man who initially connected me with the shoot-down of the C-130 60528, the Prop Wash Gang and ultimately with Sasnashen is Larry Tart, author of “The Price of Vigilance” (2001) and “Freedom through Vigilance” (2010). I’ve never met him in person yet feel a kindred spirit in him. He signs his emails to me “In Brotherhood” and on this day that fraternal bond became very real and concrete. During the opening ceremony I know he was with us. I took advantage of the attentiveness of the group and gave some background to the people on the importance of Mr. Tart’s personal vigilance in this story.
With much excitement and joy we dedicated the house to the education and elucidation of the village children and youth. Fr. Tadé has a magnetic personality and has won the hearts of the children in the villages. Every week he visits the students in Sasnashen and nine other villages in the area. He shared his vision with us; the Center will be a place where children can learn, play, explore their options, and most importantly share and talk with other young people and mentors. We donated and installed computers in the Center to make e-chats possible between the kids there and young people in America. Fr. Tadé is in the process of organizing a line-up of mentors, educators, leaders, workers, businessmen and priests to come to the Center on a regular basis to work with the youth. His enthusiasm was contagious and inspired some of the guests to donate toward the goals of the Center.
Following the opening ceremony, the group travelled the 10km ride to Sasnashen, where we visited the crash-site and the monument. There, we offered a requiem prayer to the 17 servicemen and also remembered Martin Kakosian and Deacon Hrayr Nalbandian in our prayers. May God rest their souls.
We arranged with one of the with one of the local village families to host a lunch/celebration. Inside their house we truly celebrated with food, wine, song and dance. Today, from the midst of tragedy, a new chapter was being opened in the life of the village and in the life of young people wanting an opportunity for a better life. Many of the villagers suffer immense economic hardships. Education and building up self-worth are the cornerstones of this project.
The opening ceremony, with transportation and meal was sponsored by the In His Shoes ministry. If you would like to aid the young people of Sasnashen through the Center, you may make a one-time donation or sign up for a monthly pledge by visiting our website and pressing on the “Donate Button.” Funds earmarked for the Sasnashen Youth Center will be transferred entirely to the Center.
To learn more and to follow along on all of our outreach programs, sign up for the In His Shoes newsletter, and/or follow us on Instagram and Facebook for pictures and comments about the opening. The Center will soon launch its own FB page and can be followed there as well.
I take this opportunity to thank all those who made this day a reality: Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese, Larry Tart and the Prop Wash Gang of the US AirForce, Fr. Tadé & Yn. Hripsimé Takhmazian of Talin, members of our Bible Study group in Glendale and the In His Shoes Mission, with the Next Step listeners – for their donations and most importantly for their prayers. God bless you all. We look forward to the good works and achievements of the youth, with growth in a spirit of love.
Published – 8 November 2019
Last month a small group of us returned from Armenia where we opened the Sasnashen Youth Center in the city of Talin. The story behind the project was truly a fascinating one and at our Archbishop’s request I will share it with everyone at a gathering next Tuesday, November 12 at the Western Diocese. Appropriately, on this Veterans Day Weekend, the story is a reminder of sacrifice, love and forging forward in the quest for peace.
The “Sasnashen Story” begins during the Cold War, when a US Air Force C-130 plane was shot down by the Soviets. The plane crashed in the village of Sasnashen and 60 years later the impact of that event is still being felt. Last year, on the 60th anniversary of the shoot-down our Primate sent me to a memorial gathering in Nebraska at Offutt Air Force Base. At this gathering of veterans and their families I was asked to share some thoughts about the shoot-down from the perspective of an Armenian priest. It was an opportunity to connect dots between America and Armenia, between sacrifice and freedom, between the Christian understanding of good overcoming evil and light illuminating the darkness. We offered a prayer for the victims of the shoot-down, all 17 servicemen who fell that day in 1958 in Sasnashen.
The trip to Nebraska and our meeting at the Air Force Base became the catalyst from which we went on to Sasnashen, met with the village people and the front-line workers with the youth of the area. Subsequently, I made a couple of trips culminating in the opening of the Sasnashen Youth Center in Talin, funded through a small grant from the Prop Wash Gang. The Center is a safe place for young people to congregate, learn and grow. Most importantly, it is a place where the importance of vigilance against evil is emphasized through the center itself and its programs.
Join us on Tuesday, November 12, as I share the stories of our visits along with pictures and video footage. Join us as we thank our veterans with this special gesture of remembrance for their service and sacrifice, which has had repercussions in this corner of Armenia.