Threat Reduction Agency Dozen Lead Kosovo Observer Force
By Cindy McGovern
Special to American Forces Press Service
DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Va., Feb. 23, 1999 A team of 12 Defense Threat Reduction Agency personnel in Europe have returned home after months of patrolling one of the most troubled hot spots in the world -- Kosovo.
The Serb province captured the world's attention in 1998 as fighting between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian army and police forces caused an estimated 1,500 deaths and displaced an estimated 230,000 people from their homes.
The 12, as members of the U.S. Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission, were among the 2,000 unarmed observers sent to Kosovo last October. Their job was to monitor the warring sides' compliance with a U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire and a stand-down by Serb army and police forces.
The threat reduction agency personnel were among the first verifiers on the ground. Other American and European verification teams filtered into Kosovo in the ensuing weeks.
Agency officials said their personnel were able to help jump- start the mission because of their experience in monitoring international agreements. In particular, agency personnel are already in the Balkans, assisting in the implementation of the 1995 Dayton Accords that brought a cease-fire to Bosnia.
"Given the volatility of the Kosovo environment and our initial uncertainty about the exact nature of the duties to be performed, I made a conscious decision to identify individuals rather than core teams," said Army Col. Robert Huddleston, chief of the agency's European operations.
The 12 were selected because of their Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty monitoring experience and previous assignments in Bosnia, he said. Other criteria included availability and relevant military background and training.
Army Lt. Col. Richard Greene, team operations chief, emphasized an unusual qualification of all from the O-5 in command to the team's three Army sergeants: All are experienced working with foreign counterparts, diplomats and leaders. Similar contacts would usually be made at much higher levels in a normal situation, he said. For example, Army Sgt. Patrick Haynes, who speaks Serbo-Croatian, screened and hired local interpreters and was primary liaison to the sector's Serbian police chief and Kosovar rebel commander.
The observer mission headquarters and operations center were in Kosovo Polje, west of the provincial capital of Pristina. The observers conducted about 25 patrols a day throughout the province. A typical patrol would consist of at least a patrol leaders -- "mission commander" -- a driver and a linguist. The patrols moved in fully armored Land Rovers, Chevrolet Suburbans or Humvees painted bright orange.
At the end of each day, the patrols would report the day's events. The reports would ultimately find their way to U.S. embassies, secretary of state and the National Security Council, among other places.
"We received calls every day from the White House, the secretary of defense's office and the secretary of state's office," Greene said.
Team members found themselves performing a delicate balancing act while on patrols. "We worked very hard to maintain neutrality with the Serbian authorities, the KLA and the villagers," said team leader Army Lt. Col. Leonard Blevins. "We were in constant contact with the villagers, some of whom were pretty desperate. Most of the villages we saw suffered some damage."
The damage depended on where you were, he said. Pristina and other major cities seemed largely undamaged. Some of the small villages, though, were totally destroyed and badly vandalized.
Navy Lt. Bill Mosenfelder saw the destruction firsthand and lived amid it. His final assignment in Kosovo was a 20-day stay in the village of Malisevo.
"It was a ghost town when we moved in, quite brutalized," he said. "The only presence was Serbian police and about a hundred stray dogs." Mosenfelder, one other American and an interpreter moved into an abandoned home bereft of running water and electricity. Mission headquarters had thought the team's presence might instill former residents and other refugees with enough confidence to resettle the village.
"To say I assisted the return of [refugees] is an exaggeration," Mosenfelder said. "I provided liaison with humanitarian organizations, I visited people and I worked very hard to be neutral." But he and his team also came to realize how important their presence was to residents.
"I had one individual tell me, 'If you leave, we leave'," he said. More than 50 families had returned home to Malisevo by the time a relief observer team arrived in January from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Army Staff Sgt. Paul Reyes, deputy region commander in Pristina, said he usually led patrol through four or five villages each day in the area north of the capital.
"People would talk to us. Both sides would talk to us," he said. "I think the local Albanians were glad we were there. Within our region, there were three shootings -- three Albanians were killed. Tensions were always high and we were unarmed. We were always a target."
"There was a cease-fire in place and violence was limited, but the feeling of being threatened was constant," Blevins said.
"From the time you entered the area you were on your toes," said Army Lt. Col. Rosemarie LaRocco. "We watched for the intentional threat, but you also had to be aware of accidents. The soldiers, police and KLA all had weapons and they were all around us."
While the team may have been a target and was under constant stress, individual members described a feeling of accomplishment from the experience.
"The first time we would go through an area, it would be a ghost town," said Blevins. As the observers' bright orange vehicles became a familiar sight, a semblance of normality would return. "The kids would come out when we came through, and finally the adults. I think the people looked to us for neutrality."
LaRocco saw the observer mission's impact on a personal level. "I was in a shop and an elderly Albanian woman hugged me and kissed me. We ended up talking to her for about 30 minutes, about how she felt safer since we were there," she said. "But I also observed obscene gestures from some other people who didn't want us there."
In addition to a feeling of accomplishment, Mosenfelder came home with a lesson: "I learned a lot about repression and what drives people to pick up arms and revolt."
Team members returned to home station in Frankfurt from mid- December to early January 1999 as new European observer teams moved into the province.
"Everyone on the team did an outstanding job. Because of their professionalism and dedication, we were able to achieve great things," said Blevins. "Some people on the mission from outside DTRA and DoD had never been faced with this type of situation before. I really believe our folks were the glue that held it together. That's a tribute to the people who went there."
[Adapted from an article by Cindy McGovern, editor of the DTRA Connection, Defense Threat Reduction Agency.]