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Bosnia Update -- What a Difference a Year Makes

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

TUZLA, Bosnia, Dec. 3, 1996 – Just shy of a year ago, there was little here but thick, sloppy coffee-colored mud, cold slush and snow, and the threat of mines.

Today, there is still mud, but it's been tamed by tons of gravel and miles of plank sidewalks. Many mines have been removed. Precisely aligned tent and trailer cities feature wood floors and heaters. Anthony's Pizza and Baskin-Robbins have shops near an American mess hall.


The U.S. 1st Armored Division arrived here 20,000-strong in late December last year as part of NATO's peace implementation force. With the help of U.S. Air Force Red Horse engineers, they quickly turned a former Yugoslavian air base into Task Force Eagle headquarters, bustling with troops, vehicles, equipment and supplies. Base camps sprouted throughout the American sector of northern Bosnia.


Setting up was the first step. Second was implementing the Dayton peace agreement. Working with military counterparts from 32 nations including Russia, the American troops separated warring factions, divided disputed territory and sent warring troops and heavy equipment to cantonment areas. They helped the struggling nation hold a national election. NATO's peace implementation force, known as IFOR, gave Bosnia its first year of peace since civil war erupted in 1991.


Today, about half of the initial 20,000 1st Armored Division soldiers who crossed the flooded Sava River on a pontoon bridge have rotated back to their base in Germany. IFOR's job is nearly finished.


On Dec. 20, NATO's peace implementation force can officially say "mission complete." U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry said IFOR did a spectacular job. "Every military task outlined in the Dayton peace accords [was done] effectively and on schedule," he said.


"You've exceeded everyone's expectations of the effectiveness and efficiency of your mission," Perry said during a Thanksgiving Day visit to Task Force Eagle headquarters at Tuzla and nearby Camp Dobol. The defense secretary recalled he went to Grafenwoehr and Hohensfels, Germany, a year ago to see the division training for its Bosnia mission. "What a difference a year makes," he said.


But while IFOR's year-long mission is nearly complete, NATO's job in Bosnia is not finished, Perry said. NATO officials are organizing a smaller, follow-on stabilization force to sustain the gains IFOR has made.


"Some cynics say, 'If you've done so well, why aren't you going home at the end of 12 months?'" Perry said. "The answer to that is twofold. Individual soldiers are going home in 12 months. We made a commitment a year ago that the soldiers who came in here would be out in 12 months and they will be. Most of them already are.


"Secondly, notwithstanding the success of the military mission, the civilian functions, which have been moving along in parallel, have been very slow to get off the ground," Perry said. "Their successful execution is essential to long-term peace and stability in Bosnia. Therefore, NATO has decided to put in a follow-on stabilization force to give those civil functions another year and a half to give a chance for peace to really take hold."


The United States has agreed to support the NATO operation by providing about 8,500 troops. The total NATO force will be about 31,000. Turnover from IFOR to the stabilization force, now known as SFOR, is set for Dec. 20. Plans call for reducing the size of the stabilization force based on six-month assessments of the situation, Perry said. By next fall, the U.S. contingent may drop to 5,500, he said.


A covering force of about 4,000 1st Infantry Division soldiers are filling in during the transition from IFOR to SFOR. Bosnia duty is not new for the Schweinfurt-based unit. About 1,500 1st Division soldiers supported the 1st Armored Division during the IFOR mission. Division leaders know the dangers and threats involved in the new operation.


According to a division official, the area is still rife with ethnic tensions. Aggressive resettling has occurred in the past and continues. All factions in the region use resettlement and limiting freedom of movement as weapons. Terrorism also remains a threat.


The covering force deployed in early October. Spc. Michael Damberger, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, is a signal support specialist with the covering force. He's been training for the Bosnia mission for about a year. "It's exciting to actually do my job, rather than just training," he said. "I'm having a good time."


Capt. Curtis Crum, also of the same unit, said the covering force troops are motivated and will do anything they're asked to do. Crum said living conditions are quite good at the base camps.


"It's not like home, but it's comfortable," he said. "The 1st Armored left this place in great shape. We were able to come in on their heels and pick up right where they left off. We haven't missed a beat."


Army Sgt. Randy Henk, an M-1A1 tank gunner with the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor, also works in the battalion's tactical operations center. The center, he said, "is the lifeline for our guys when they're out on patrols or manning checkpoints." He said he appreciates the opportunity to serve in Bosnia. "It's exciting getting to see what I've been reading about in the paper, to actually be a part of this," he said.


Army Sgt. Debra Perrier, a forward support team medic, said living conditions are better than she expected. "The weather hasn't been too bad," she said. "We haven't had many injuries, no deaths. It's a little hard being away from home on the holidays, but we just try to keep each other going. We support each other. We're here, so we just have to keep a positive attitude about it."


Army Pfc. Christopher Camps, a fire support specialist with 1st Bn., 26th Infantry, expected to live in tents. "We're sleeping in little trainers like in a trailer park. The guys in the 1st Armored Division had it lot worse off than we did. They came down and set all this up. We're just moving into their house. We're coming in and taking over where they left off."


And what were these soldiers thankful for on Thanksgiving in Bosnia? Their spouses, fiances and children. One soldier also said, "having all my fingers and toes." Another said, "just being alive in Bosnia."


No specific units have yet been tasked with the next phase of NATO's involvement in Bosnia. Officials are preparing plans for NATO approval. Perry said SFOR will include a fairly large number of reserve component units.


"We do not conduct any significant mission anywhere in the world today without reserve forces," he said. "This particular mission draws heavily on the reserves because the concentration of our civil-military capability is in the reserve forces."


SFOR's mission will be to deter war and provide a secure environment, allowing civil life to return to normal. These include resettling refugees, reconstructing the economy and reconciling political differences. The mission is not easy, Perry said.


"There are going to be municipal elections in the spring," he said. "These could be even more difficult than the national elections (held in September). Refugee resettling will probably be under way at a greater pace than this past year and that could create an environment leading to civil conflict. The war crimes tribunal could be more active in the coming year.


"For all those reasons," Perry said, "we have to be prepared for incidents that arise from carrying out those civil functions. Which means we will need a very capable force which maintains a very visible presence."

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