The Sergeants and the Privates Make the Difference in Kosovo
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 23, 2000 "It's the sergeant E-5 on the ground who is really making a difference in Kosovo," Army Capt. Samuel Welch said. "It's the NCOs who are out there where the rubber hits the road."
About 6,100 U.S. service members are part of the 42,000- strong NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo. The United States heads the eastern sector, one of five multinational brigade sectors in Kosovo. France heads the north, Germany the south, Italy the west, and Great Britain the central section.
"It's the soldiers, not the officers, who are making things happen throughout Multinational Brigade East," Welch emphatically told the American Forces Press Service in a recent interview at Camp Monteith, Kosovo. "The U.S. military is on the forefront in Kosovo by virtue of the sacrifices and efforts put forward by the sergeants, the privates, and the sacrifices made by their families allowing them to be here."
Welch, of Rutland, Vt., is the assistant operations officer for Task Force 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. The battalion, based in Vilseck, Germany, is wrapping up a six-month rotation as part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force.
Each day, U.S. soldiers serving with the NATO-led peacekeeping force safeguard people on both sides of Kosovo's Albanian-Serbian ethnic divide. They patrol borders, escort refugees and school children, settle property disputes and watch over farmers tending their crops. They also deal with murder, shootings and other violence. All the while, they also must remain ready to fight.
"It's the most challenging mission of its kind I've ever seen," said Army Maj. Gen. John P. Abizaid, 1st Infantry Division commander. "It goes all the way from police work on one side of the spectrum to being prepared to fight the Serb military conventional forces, if it becomes necessary. It shows precisely why we've got to have soldiers prepared and trained for war, not just peacekeeping -- because on any given day, you don't know which way the mission is going to go.
"No one should ever underestimate the danger of this mission," the commander said. "It's dangerous. People who think the U.S. Army goes somewhere not to take casualties shouldn't send them there. We'll accomplish the mission. We take due consideration for force protection, but we don't let it cause us to be operationally cautious."
Some weeks are calm, he said, but then there will be an upsurge in violence. "I'd say overall we are probably better off than we were a year ago, but it still remains very violent and very unstable.
"Platoons are living in tough conditions out in the small villages, and those guys are doing absolutely magnificent work," the commander said. "We're extremely proud of their discipline, courage and ability to get the job done."
The 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week mission involves more than manning checkpoints and conducting patrols; there's also an intense human element. Welch said junior enlisted soldiers and NCOs posted in the villages pay a lot of a lot of attention to the humanitarian needs of the local families.
"The key to success is having units operate frequently in the same area so they build a relationship and rapport with the villagers," he said. "When we operate in one area, for example, they ask for certain NCOs by name. They want to tell those soldiers their problems."
Command Sgt. Maj. John Drayton, 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor, said it's hard for the soldiers not to form bonds with local residents, especially in small villages of just over a dozen families.
"They begin to trust you," he said. "Just the presence of the Humvees rolling down the road at night -- even if they don't see them, people know they can sleep secure because there are soldiers out there."
Kosovo has definitely been a learning experience, said Drayton, a 27-year veteran who's deployed to Grenada, Panama, Bosnia and elsewhere. "We're doing a lot of things that are not covered in the textbooks. "A lot of our soldiers are into education; a lot want to study history. We're writing history right now."
He said his soldiers won't soon forget what they call "the land that time forgot." Patrolling the poor, isolated region has made them count their blessings.
"We see a lot of things that make us realize we're very fortunate to be born in America," said Drayton, of Winterhaven, Fla. "People here walk two or three miles just to get water from the local well. Kids walk four kilometers to school in the snow."
In many Kosovar homes, he said, people sleep on floor pallets because they have no furniture. They make their own bread and cheese. Just about everything they own is made by hand. "People don't even have a tractor, so the wife has to guide the cows while the husband's on the plow."
With no electricity, villagers rely on oil lanterns. "You watch people get together at night and you realize what communication must have been like for our families when there were no phones and no TV," Drayton said. His soldiers, he said, have come to realize they take simple things like being able to turn on a light for granted.
"Most of them say when they get home they'll probably never complain about anything again," he said.