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Bosnian Relief From the Home Front

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

TUZLA, Bosnia, Dec. 10, 1997 – When Jason Amundsen wrote his mom in Minneapolis about what he sees each day as an Army civil affairs officer in Bosnia, she mobilized the home front.

Sending notecards to friends and relatives throughout Minneapolis, she asked for help. Word spread quickly, and Jean McCue's grassroots effort has now sent loads of over-the-counter medicine, clothing, powdered milk and other supplies to refugees of the Balkan war.

"It's surprising to see the care that these people are taking, and for people they've never met," Amundsen said proudly. "My mom has gone out of her way."

Amundsen, a second lieutenant with B Company, 127th Aviation Support Battalion, is on his first tour in Bosnia. He is one of 8,000 U.S. troops serving in the war-torn land. Other American service members are on their second or even third six-month tours since NATO peacekeeping forces entered the Balkan nation in December 1995.

NATO's 18-month stabilization force mission is set to end in June 1998. NATO officials say a follow-on force is necessary, but have not yet decided what form this will take. Military authorities are studying various options. What role, if any, U.S. troops will play is also undecided. In the meantime, NATO forces continue to provide security in Bosnia. American troops like Amundsen are on the ground doing their jobs.

As a civil affairs officer, Amundsen said he sees more of the country and its people than most U.S. troops in Bosnia. Since he arrived two months ago, the lieutenant said, he's worked among the 20,000 refugees in the Tuzla valley. He's seen firsthand the results of the massacre at Srebrenica, which left 5,000 Bosnian Muslim men missing. He's met the wives and the children who survived.

"People look to us as a beacon of sorts," Amundsen said. "They see a lot of wealth, hope and willingness to care on our end. ... In their opinion, the Europeans have failed to address any of the long-term problems for their security. They see the Americans as being the source of their liberty -- their opportunity -- their future."

Amundsen said he has found working among local officials and the refugees, especially the children, rewarding. "It's nice to see positive action, to be able to say, 'I'm making a difference,'" Amundsen said. "That's something your normal soldier doesn't see all the time on the base camp."

Some local officials would like more contact with American troops and are frustrated by the stringent force protection measures restricting U.S. troops to base, U.S. military officials said. "The command feels force protection is No. 1, and they're more concerned that a soldier deploys and redeploys than making sure he gets out and sees the local countryside," Amundsen said.

Amundsen works out of Comanche Base, temporary home to about 1,000 U.S. aviation support troops as well as their Apache, Black Hawk and Kiowa Warrior helicopters from the 501st Attack Battalion Squadron and 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

More than 35 guards and 17 guard towers protect the aviation support activities at Comanche Base. Troops live six to eight in a tent. There's a cappucino bar, food court, chapel, exercise facility, movie tent and exchange store at the compound's center. Troops added heat and light, and rehung doors at old aircraft bunkers now used for maintenance. An Army official reports crews sustain a 96 percent vehicle readiness rate.

Army Staff Sgt. Steve Varner, 4th Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry, said Comanche Base facilities are better than he expected. The Rathdrum, Idaho, native is also on his first tour in Bosnia. If the peacekeeping mission continues, he said, so be it.

"I feel whatever is necessary to maintain the peace is what we need to do," he said. "If we have to stay longer than June, then we have to stay longer than June."

Army Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Davenport, D Company, 501st Attack Battalion, is on his second tour in Bosnia. The Kelso, Wash., native said he's noticed more local people are out now than during his first tour.

"It seems like they are starting to try to get their lives back together," Davenport said. "I think we need to stay here and allow them to finish doing what we've started so they can have peace in their country and the freedom to do what they need."

Army Maj. Lillian Anita Dixon of Hampton, Va., is a personnel officer serving her second tour in Bosnia at U.S. headquarters in Tuzla. She said conditions for U.S. troops have improved dramatically. There's more hot water, more fitness equipment, even a beauty parlor is planned for the 650 or so military women assigned. A mobile exchange service van visits base camps weekly, she said.

Life also appears to have improved for the Bosnian people, Dixon said. "When I came here at first, I saw that there were a lot of homes that were ravaged. Now I've seen roofs on houses that at one time had no roofs. I haven't had an opportunity to go off the installation as much as I did last time, but the times that I have, I see people smiling. Hopefully, that means things are getting better for them."

Dixon said she's willing to serve a third tour if the mission continues and duty calls. "I go where the Army sends me," she said. "I came into the Army with the understanding that there will be times where I will be serving tours like this. If we have to do it and it's in the best interest of the United States Army and to help this country, I'd be more than willing to come serve again."

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