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Keeping Trouble at Bay in Macedonia

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

SKOPJE, FYROM, Jan. 13, 1998 – In Baumholder, Germany, they are mechanized warfighters, maneuvering Bradley fighting vehicles and firing heavy weapons.

Here, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, are U.N. peacekeepers. They patrol international borders on foot and man remote mountaintop observation posts.

"Our normal mission is to close with and destroy the enemy by means of fire and maneuver," said Army Lt. Col. Robert Pidgeon, battalion commander. "Here, we keep the peace, mainly through our presence, and by observing, monitoring and then reporting on the movements of both Macedonian forces and Serbian forces."

Pidgeon and his infantry unit are part of the U.N. Preventive Deployment Force, a multinational force of about 750 troops, nearly half American, who are keeping trouble at bay in this relatively new state.

The force monitors Macedonia's border with Albania and Serbia to prevent disputes from becoming serious conflicts. Troops report any developments that could undermine stability or threaten Macedonian territory. U.N. officials say the mission is based on the premise that prevention costs less than a cure. Regional tensions threaten the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a land-locked nation slightly larger than Vermont, located in the heart of the Balkan peninsula.

To the north, for example, tensions brew in the Serbian province of Kosovo. The ethnic Albanians who make up 90 percent of the province seek independence from Serbia. If violence erupts, regional experts say, Macedonia's 500,000 Albanians would probably become involved.

Shortly after the republic declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, President Kiro Gligorov asked the United Nations for help to prevent regional conflicts from spilling over into his country. Concerned about fighting in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, Gligorov asked for the deployment of U.N. observers.

In 1993, the United Nations deployed its first preventive military force, 1,050 strong, composed primarily of Americans and Scandinavians. First known as the U.N. Protection Force, it was later renamed the U.N. Preventive Deployment Force. Since its initial eight-month mandate, the United Nations has repeatedly extended the mission.

In April 1997, U.N. officials reduced the size of the peacekeeping force to about 750 troops. U.S. participation dropped from 500 soldiers to 350. In December, the U.N. Security Council again extended the mission for nine months.

"There are too many unknowns in this region for us to allow for any military vacuum," Henryk Sokalski, U.N. special representative to the Preventive Deployment Force, said in a Dec. 10 Christian Science Monitor article. "Leaving too early may provoke a number of repercussions that may do greater damage."

Serving as part of Task Force Able Sentry has been a good mission for Pidgeon's infantry battalion, the commander said. "We've rendered up to 200 spot reports on movements on both sides of the border," he said. "There's some smuggling going on, and there's also a lot of traffic of illegal immigrants, mainly from Romania, who move across the border down to Greece."

While border watch employs such basic infantry skills as land navigation, it does not involve any heavy equipment maneuvers. For that, Pidgeon said, the peacekeepers turn to simulated training. "Every month or so, we do a fairly large event for the task force to sustain high intensity conflict skills as much as possible," he said.

The battalion does live-fire training at Petrovic range, about five miles from Camp Able Sentry, Pidgeon said. "We also do a lot of individual training in common tasks and to sustain skills needed for our Expert Infantryman's Badge."

Pidgeon's command is split between the unit's home station in Germany and the Balkan nation. While about 350 battalion soldiers are in Macedonia, another 450 remain in Baumholder. This is the unit's second six-month tour in Macedonia. Modern technology is helping the unit keep in touch with family members and the rest of the battalion in Germany, Pidgeon said.

"Morale calls, E-mail terminals, a web page with photos, a chat room where wives can talk directly with their husbands -- there's a lot of things you can do now in terms of communications that really improves family support and that costs essentially nothing," Pidgeon said. "All it requires is a computer."

The unit pays for web access around the clock seven days a week, Pidgeon said. Messages are pulled off and sent out to soldiers each day. In the past, a letter from family members in Baumholder would have taken 3 to 4 days to reach its destination. "Now, they can type it in at battalion headquarters, hit send, and it's here 10 minutes later," Pidgeon said. "It's a wonderful tool for people to communicate back and forth."

Unlike their U.S. counterparts in Bosnia who are restricted to camp to ensure force protection, American troops in Macedonia are free to go downtown. Some restrictions apply to the policy, however, Pidgeon said. No more than 25 percent of the force can be out at any one time. Soldiers are not allowed to consume more than two beers. They must travel in teams of three soldiers with at least a specialist (E-4) in charge and they have to be back by midnight.

"People react very well to us," Pidgeon said. "They really like us. They're very positive about the U.N. mission. It adds credibility to their position as a young nation to have the U.N. mission here, specifically, to have U.S. forces on the ground."

Capt. John Rayfield, Camp Able Sentry surgeon, said he believes the local residents are happy about the U.N. presence. "Any time there's word of the U.S. battalion leaving because of political constraints or some other situation, they'll make an outcry," he said. "They know the difference we make in their lives."

Rayfield, a native of Columbia, Md., is stationed at the U.S. Army clinic in Vicenza, Italy. Temporary duty at the Camp Able Sentry aid station is his first assignment as a physician. The six-month tour in the Balkans has been a great learning experience, he said.

"Usually, as a new doctor, you go to your first year of training after medical school as an intern," he said. "You learn how to take care of patients -- but with no responsibility. Here, I'm thrust into a situation where I have 500-plus people who come to me for medical care. I'm also doing some veterinary work. This is great for me because it's like a mini-emergency room. I never know what's going to walk in."

The young doctor also appreciates working with foreign medical counterparts. "We're in a former communist country," Rayfield said. "I'm fascinated every time I go down to the hospital. I'm talking to guys who I was thinking about fighting years ago. I'm trying to practice medicine within their system."

Spc. Christopher M. Russell, a battalion mechanic, said he's enjoyed Macedonia duty, but there's no place like home station. "People here are friendly," Russell said. "I'm going to miss it when I leave, but I'll be glad to get back to Germany."

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