Dec. 23, 2006

Virginia National Guard serves in Kosovo

By James Crawley
Courtesy of Media General News Service

About 500 Virginia National Guardsmen are patrolling towns and villages in a far-off land where sectarian violence has pitted neighbor against neighbor for centuries.

In this largely forgotten place, soldiers maintain peace with diplomacy -- and an M-16 at the ready.It's not Iraq or Afghanistan.It's Kosovo. Last month, the 29th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Va., began a yearlong peacekeeping tour in eastern Kosovo, a province of the former Yugoslavia that has been under United Nations' protection since 1999.

"We're not here to fix Kosovo. We're here to help Kosovo fix itself," said Brig. Gen. Douglas Earhart, who commands Multi-National Task Force (East), the American-led peacekeeping force in the province.

So far, the peacekeeping mission has been ... peaceful. That's good news for Spc. Meghan Robinson, 21, of Fairfax, Va.

"I was surprised how calm and peaceful it's been," she said. Kosovo is not a high-risk combat zone like Iraq, and soldiers do not wear body armor or helmets. That could change in weeks. A UN mediator is expected to release his recommendations on Kosovo's future after Serb elections next month -- and none of the factions is likely to be happy with the options.

"Are their dangers (for the troops)? Absolutely," said Earhart in a telephone interview from his headquarters at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo. "You have to be ready to respond (with force) at any time," he added.

He's confidant his troops can quickly change from peacekeeping to a more aggressive role to quell violence. With active-duty forces largely engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Kosovo peacekeeping mission has been largely handled by Guard units. The 500 Virginians -- most from units in Northern and Central Virginia -- are among the 1,500 soldiers who make up the task force. They serve with a large contingent from Massachusetts and smaller numbers from 22 other states, including North Carolina and Tennessee, and Puerto Rico.

They began training for the mission in August at an Indiana military base. In November, the troops arrived in Kosovo and learned the ropes from the previous American unit in the region. On Dec. 12, the 29th took over fulltime, and Earhart assumed the task force's command.

Kosovo has had a rocky history. Part of Yugoslavia since World War I, Kosovo suffered ethnic conflict between Serbian Kosovars and Albanian Kosovars during the late 1990s as Yugoslavia broke apart in civil war. By early 1999, Serbian forces were rampaging through Kosovo's ethnic Albanian communities.

After attempts to end the violence failed, NATO launched a 73-day bombing campaign against Serb forces and infrastructure, both in Kosovo and Serbia.

Serbia removed its forces from Kosovo, the bombing stopped and the United Nations took over administration of the province to preserve the peace. The U.S., along with Greece, Poland and the Ukraine, patrol the eastern section, while NATO and Russian forces secure the rest of Kosovo.

UN mediator Martii Ahtisaari's recommendations may include allowing Kosovo to declare total independence from Serbia, some form of autonomy from Serbia or allowing Serbia to maintain control over Serbian enclaves. No recommendation is likely to make all factions happy.

The announcement could be the flashpoint for further violence, said Daniel Serwer, a former diplomat who monitors Balkan issues at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

"From the viewpoint of a Virginia National Guardsman, he's got to be worried about ethnic rioting," he said.

Serwer says Albanians will be unhappy if the UN doesn't declare an independent state for Kosovo. That could lead to rioting. The last rioting throughout Kosovo occurred in March 2004.The smaller Serb population would be angered if Kosovo were granted independence.

"Neither party will get everything they want," Earhart said.Guardsmen, he added, have a "Minuteman mentality" for being ready for action on a moment's notice.

In the meantime, Earhart has boosted patrols -- troops driving and walking through towns and neighborhoods, meeting residents and visiting schools and town offices.

The idea, the general said, is to keep Serb and Albanian residents calm and to encourage patience. It's a challenge, he said.

"This isn't a military mission that the standard infantry soldier has trained for in the past," said Earhart, who lives in Springfield, Va. "This is Ph.D. level stuff."

Sgt. James Gerlinger, 22, is on the front line.The Lynchburg resident leads a liaison monitoring team that makes daily visits to government and school offices in Vitina, a few miles east of Camp Bondsteel.

"I get out and talk to local officials and the townspeople to learn what's going on -- as if I lived here," said Gerlinger. Most days, the sergeant, a translator and team of guardsmen listen to people's problems and offer advice. They pass what they hear to headquarters for follow-up.

"They're just normal people," he said. "They just have problems that are out of the ordinary for (Americans) but are normal for them."

For example, the Kosovars aren't used to paying for electricity, which was free under Communist and Serbian rule, Gerlinger said. Determining who owes how much is complicated by the lack of electric meters.

The soldiers' task isn't easy because of ethnic, language and religious differences. The town Gerlinger patrols has two names. The Serbs call it Vitina and the Albanians call it Viti. Another hurdle: Many in the male-dominated land refuse to speak to female American soldiers.

But, Gerlinger said, "The biggest struggle is staying impartial to both sides."


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