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Witnesses to Progress Thank Balkan Peacekeepers

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17, 2001 – U.S. and NATO-led peacekeeping forces in the Balkans are to be commended for what they've accomplished, say three senior officials who've watched the mission progress over the past five years.

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Deputy Defense Secretary Rudy de Leon (center) talks with U.S. troops at Camp Comanche in Bosnia. He visited the camp Jan. 13, 2001, to express his and the nation's gratitude for the work NATO-led peacekeepers have done in restoring stability in the Balkans. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.

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The peacekeepers have done "an outstanding job, a spectacular job," Deputy Defense Secretary Rudy de Leon told U.S. service members in Bosnia. "You're shaping this region in ways that the results are measurable."

De Leon, accompanied by Ambassador Robert A. Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, and Italian Deputy Defense Minister Marco Minniti, traveled to Bosnia Jan. 13 to salute U.S. and Italian troops. The deputy secretary's party flew to Tuzla after visiting members of the Italian Battle Group and Multinational Specialized Forces in Sarajevo.

Adverse weather, however, canceled a visit to Kosovo slated for the next day.

Upon arrival in Tuzla, de Leon met with Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO supreme allied commander, Europe, and then joined his fellow travelers at Task Force Eagle headquarters. After a mission update, the group met with soldiers at Eagle Base and nearby Camp Comanche.

Five years ago, de Leon said, the region was involved in the worst kind of war -- street to street. "Now, because of your professionalism and dedication," he said, "children are going to school and life has started fresh in a very troubled spot.

"I wanted to come here to thank you and to acknowledge the incredible job that you do every day," he said. "As a representative of President Clinton and Secretary (William) Cohen, I just want to say how proud the country is. Indeed, the greatest compliment we can provide to you is to speak to your professionalism and the enormous contribution you've made."

No matter what the challenge, he noted, U.S. forces stepped up to the plate. When a need for school supplies became evident, he recalled, an American officer took the lead. When Americans wanted to send Christmas presents to Bosnian children, an Army colonel created a donation program for school supplies -- and schools that had been closed suddenly opened up again, he said.

Defense officials know it's hard to be away from home during the holidays, the deputy told the troops.

"Everyone would like to be at home with their families watching the playoff games and Super Bowl Sunday. You'll go home soon, too. But in the meantime, you're doing something unique, something extraordinary, something historic.

"When you're 20 or 30 years older and you talk about what you did as young men and young women, you'll be able to look back and say that you accomplished something extraordinary. For that, our country, and history, will be very grateful."

Minniti expressed his nation's gratitude through an interpreter.

"I came here to thank you in the name of my country for all that you're doing here," Minniti said. "You've done a tremendous job and the results are visible.

He called Balkan stability important for Italy and for all of Europe. "It is very important that here we re-establish a climate of civil living and respect among the various ethnic groups," he noted.

Minniti said it was "good and heartening" to see American and Italian troops working together.

"I know that in your work here you often coordinate and work with our carabinieri. This cooperation between American and Italian troops is very important and very positive," he said.

He also praised the U.S. task force for its well-organized base. "I compliment you on this because, in effect, you've built a small city," he said. "You have really built an environment that permits you to pass in the best possible way the period that you have to pass here in this country. I wish you good luck in your work and for when you return to the United States."

In closing his remarks at Camp Comanche's "Trigger" recreation center, Minniti noted that he'd played a soccer table game with some of the GIs. "We won this game," he joked, "but you all are the stronger."

De Leon then introduced the troops to Seiple, a former Marine aviator and Vietnam veteran. In the 1990s, the deputy said, Seiple was a U.S. ambassador-at-large with a mission to "protect a human right that is the most unique and the most precious -- that is the right to express religious freedom around the world."

The ambassador has traveled to the Balkans several times over the past five years and has witnessed the mission's progress, de Leon noted. Seiple currently teaches a course on reconciling parties who have long histories of contention and conflict.

Seiple told the troops when he was in Bosnia in 1995, the odds were very long that the peacekeeping mission would work out. "This was a faraway place with names that could not be pronounced," he noted. "You couldn't tell the players without a score card.

"We came away brooding over the fact that this is an area that's going to test every bit of professional skill that all of us had. We would all find out how good we really were by how this came out. By 'we,' I mean the politicians, the diplomats, the military, the NGO (nongovernmental organizations) community and the faith-based community."

As time has passed, he said, Bosnia has become more stable than many other parts of the world he's visited.

"So the book is no longer out on the military in terms of the testing of how good we can be," he told the troops. The world knows, as do "the people of Bosnia who have seen so much and endured so much," he said.

"If it can work here, it can work anywhere," Seiple said. "So as you prosper here, you bring hope to an awful lot of places that have yet to stop the flames, the firefights, stop the war. We salute you for what you've already accomplished. The American people, the government, are profoundly grateful for who you are and what you're doing."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. Richard Fitzgerald of the 229th Aviation Regiment receives a commemorative coin from Deputy Defense Secretary Rudy de Leon at Camp Comanche in Tuzla, Bosnia. De Leon presented the coin to the Henderson, N.C., native Jan. 13, 2001, while visiting U.S. troops. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDeputy Defense Secretary Rudy de Leon listens as Ambassador Robert A. Seiple speaks to U.S. troops at Camp Comanche in Bosnia. Seiple, who served as ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, noted the progress he's witnessed since the NATO-led peacekeeping mission began there in 1995. He and de Leon visited Jan. 13, 2001, and saluted the troops for what they've accomplished. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.  
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