Face of Defense: Soldier in Kosovo Bridges Cultures
By Army Sgt. Joshua Dodds
North Dakota National Guard
KACANIK, Kosovo, June 14, 2010 Beyond the outskirts of this city's busy main street, smaller villages dot the mountainous terrain. Narrow roads wind cautiously up the sides of the tree-covered mountains to rural homes and villages, near the border with the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia.
Army Staff Sgt. Andrew T. Gilbertson of the North Dakota National Guard displays artwork from students in Oakes, N.D., to students in Bicec, Kosovo, April 15, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Joshua Dodds
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
This is where Army Staff Sgt. Andrew T. Gilbertson, a North Dakota National Guard soldier, has found his place as a middleman in a cross-continental exchange program between students in Kosovo and his native state.
An educator in his civilian life, the Oakes, N.D., native said the village schools felt like familiar ground to him when he arrived here in late October, as part of the 12th U.S. rotation in the NATO-led Kosovo Force.
Gilbertson is part of Multinational Battle Group East's Liaison Monitoring Team 6, peacekeepers who work with local communities to pinpoint problems and facilitate solutions.
"I started working with the schools for two reasons, the first being I am a teacher and felt at home talking to other educators and students," Gilbertson said. "Second, in some of the villages I worked with, the schools were where the problem-solvers in the village worked."
Gilbertson has worked with students and staff in six schools during his time in the Kacanik municipality. He said working in the schools has helped him in his job, which is sensing people’s concerns knowing what’s going on in the municipality.
Gilbertson said he first thought of starting a pen-pal program between students in North Dakota and Kosovo. After talking to Larry Engel, the technology support advisor of Oakes School, a better idea was proposed.
"We thought it would be a good idea to take it one step further and videotape the schools and students here, which teachers in Oakes would show to the students there," Gilbertson said. "The students in Oakes then made a video themselves that we showed to the students in Kosovo. It was more of a visual cultural exchange, and the students in both the U.S. and Kosovo gained a better understanding of each other's daily life."
Gilbertson gave examples of the effort put forth by the students in Kosovo.
"In Bicec, they had students singing a cappella, in English, as part of their presentation, and in Kotlina, they did a whole play, which took time to organize," Gilbertson said. "Everyone was 100 percent on board between the U.S. and Kosovo."
Engel credited Gilbertson’s dedication to teaching and educating young minds for creating the communication between schools and nations. "He wanted there to be a way for students from such different cultures to be able to communicate and share," he said.
Over time, the relationship between the schools has blossomed. After learning more about the needs of the Kosovo municipality and the students, students and faculty in Oakes decided to take on a bigger project.
"It was an amazing experience, yet humbling, as we saw what the Kacanik municipality was doing with what they have," Engel said. "Oakes had at least nine teachers that were meeting with [Gilbertson] via Skype and discussing the sharing of cultures, then the idea was brought up to gather supplies for the students in Kosovo."
Don Warren, Oakes principal, agreed this would be a good undertaking for the student council. The council, headed by Oakes student Max Kettlering, gathered donations by leaving boxes in classrooms and around the school for students to drop off school supplies.
“We ended up with six boxes,” Engel said, “and when we took them to the post office, we were overwhelmed with a cost of over $800 to ship them to one of the humanitarian aid agencies in Kosovo.”
But North Dakota U.S. Sen. Bryon Dorgan was headed to the region, and after the school staff contacted his office, he offered to take the boxes to Germany if the school would send the boxes to his Senate office.
"We had one last hurdle -- raising $155 to send the boxes to Washington, D.C.," Engel said. "Oakes has a family support group for the families of soldiers who serve in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. They volunteered to pay the entire amount of the postage, and the boxes were off."
Once the boxes arrived in Kosovo, Gilbertson handed them off to Naim Hysa, Kacanik Red Cross director, who happily distributed the donated school supplies. Over two days in early June, Hysa and Arlend Hysa, youth leader of Kacanik Red Cross, with the help of youth volunteers Domjeta Tromi and Erona Thaqi, drove their truck up and around the dry and bumpy mountain roads of the municipality, delivering one box to each of the six village schools.
"I think that this small project grew and was successful because a lot of people worked hard to make it happen," Gilbertson said. "I think at the end of the day, the students are the ones who benefited, and the world got just a little bit smaller because of this project."