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Life at Eagle Base: 48th Brigade tries to maintain normalcy at camp — July 24, 2001

July 24, 2001

Copyright 2001 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
The Macon Telegraph
July 24, 2001, Tuesday

LENGTH: 1970 words
BYLINE: By Drew Brown, Telegraph Staff Writer
Twenty-foot chain link fences and rolls of concertina wire separate Georgia peacekeepers from the people they are here to safeguard.

Outside Eagle Base is a land of bombed-out villages and dwellings still pockmarked with bullet holes from the 1992-95 civil war.

Inside is a tidy world of smooth streets and manicured lawns where soldiers must carry guns wherever they go.

This sprawling headquarters for U.S. troops in Bosnia is an oasis of safety in a region recovering from chaos. Life for the 1,200 troops of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade revolves around one imperative: No one gets hurt. As an American officer put it during a visit last month by reporters: “There is nothing worth an American soldier dying for over here.”

Most U.S. soldiers in Bosnia see little of the country they came to protect, because troop safety is the cardinal rule for senior military officials.

Eagle Base is in many ways like the perfect little American town. There are cappuccino bars, Internet cafes, movie theaters, 24-hour fitness centers, and dining halls serving up all the food you can eat.

“We try to keep a sense of normalcy around here as much as possible,” said Lt. Col. Larry McClendon of Macon, commander of the 148th Logistics Task Force at nearby Camp Comanche.

Most troops rarely leave base camps. For some Georgia soldiers, halfway through a six-month peacekeeping stint, the restrictions are stifling.

“It’s like we’re prisoners here,” said Spc. Latisha Gray, a medic with the Macon-based detachment known as “Charlie Med.”

Gray sat on a bench outside Comanche’s medical clinic on a recent Saturday afternoon. Another medic, Spc. Gery Pollock of Pulaski County, nodded in agreement.

“You can walk up to the gate, look out, put your head down and walk back,” he said.

American soldiers have been in Bosnia as part of the NATO-led Stabilization Force since December 1995, when the Dayton Peace Agreement ended 3 1/2 years of war among Serbs, Muslims and Croats, the country’s primary ethnic groups.

‘Complacency Kills’

While most American soldiers remain sealed off behind barbed wire, troops from other SFOR countries stroll around Sarajevo, Mostar and Tuzla, often unarmed, as if they are tourists on vacation.

By contrast, American troops must carry weapons nearly everywhere, even in camp. The streets of Eagle Base are full of soldiers with M-16 rifles slung across their backs or 9mm pistols in dangling shoulder holsters.

Weapons are supposed to be kept unloaded, except when soldiers venture outside on patrol.

One of the most common sounds at Eagle Base and other camps is the crack of rifle and pistol bolts as soldiers ensure their weapons are empty before entering any building.

Signs at every gun-clearing station warn: PAY ATTENTION! COMPLACENCY KILLS! The last group of American peacekeepers in Bosnia suffered three accidental shootings, one fatal.

Though no American troops have been killed by hostile fire in Bosnia, U.S. military leaders consider the country dangerous. Troop safety, or “force protection” as they call it, remains paramount in senior officers’ minds.

“You’ve got to realize that we’re in a foreign land, and we’re not liked by everyone here,” McClendon said.

McClendon and other officers cite more dangers. One million land mines lie hidden across the country along the former front lines. AK-47 rifles, grenades and other weapons are easy to get.

Before its collapse, Yugoslavia’s defense strategy consisted of arming the populace if an invasion ever occurred. Senior American officers estimate there are 15 automatic rifles left in Bosnia for every one of the 8,500 soldiers in the Muslim-Croat and Bosnian Serb armies.

But American officers describe the former combatants as the “most compliant element” in Bosnia. Rock-throwing crowds are the biggest threat U.S. troops face now, but even those encounters are rare.

“I think the reason we haven’t had any incidents with our soldiers is because everyone knows that Americans are well-armed and are better armed than they are,” said Brig. Gen. Robeley Rigdon, 48th Brigade commander.

Six years after the war, the march to peace in Bosnia has hit several roadblocks. There have been riots in Bosnian Serb areas when Muslims returned to rebuild mosques destroyed in the war. A push for a separate ethnic homeland by Croat nationalists led to a six-week mutiny in the Muslim-Croat army. SFOR troops and auditors attempting to seize bank records in April encountered mob violence in Mostar and other towns.

“Stable, but slow,” is a phrase many Western officials use to describe the progress of peace.

Recent outbreaks of violence remain isolated incidents, they say.

“These are aberrations,” said outgoing U.S. Ambassador Thomas Miller.

“They are, in part, products of the atmosphere of hate. But secondly, they are functions of the hard-line nationalist parties who are losing power.”

Fighting boredom in camp

Keeping the peace can be a boring business, soldiers acknowledge.

“It’s a very set routine we get into here,” said Capt. Kerry Ochs of Warner Robins, who is stationed at Comanche.

“That’s why we try to do things like sports — to keep their minds off home.”

Another officer, who asked not to be identified, was more blunt in his assessment.

“Honestly, a lot of the tasks the soldiers do on a daily basis are just to give them something to do,” he said. “And to take their minds off the fact that they are going to be here awhile.”

Sports injuries keep the medics of Charlie Med hopping. They also have treated three heart attacks, none fatal.

“It’s been a good experience,” said Sgt. David McCarey of Lizella, one of two nurses assigned to the detachment. “We’re doing what we were trained to do.”

Movies are another popular diversion. During last month’s visit, Steven Spielberg’s World War II blockbuster “Saving Private Ryan” was followed by Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War epic “The Patriot.” The 1970 George C. Scott biopic “Patton” played at The Balkan Grille, one of two dining facilities at Eagle.

Regular Army troops with the 3rd Infantry Division at Camp McGovern, about 15 minutes away by Blackhawk helicopter, watched Tom Berenger’s action flick “Sniper.”

The mess halls at Eagle, McGovern and elsewhere would put most civilian cafeterias back home to shame. Sunday cookouts feature grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs and chicken.

The coolers are stocked with soft-drinks, juice and non-alcoholic beer. There’s even a Burger King and Baskin-Robbins next to the Balkan Grille for soldiers who get tired of Army chow.

Juice and cappuccino bars offer places to unwind in the evenings. At the Internet cafes, troops can surf the Web for free and keep in touch with their loved ones through e-mail and streaming video. Post exchanges at each camp offer a place to spend the extra $110 a month American soldiers earn in Bosnia for hazardous duty pay.

Academic types can earn a few college credits in their spare time. Four universities offer correspondence courses for soldiers in Bosnia.

Those who are interested can study Serbo-Croatian and learn about the country in which they are serving. But few exercise the option. Only eight soldiers at Camp McGovern signed up this semester.

Maybe that’s because the only locals most American soldiers ever talk to are those who work at the camps. Most of them already speak English. About 600 Bosnian civilians work at Eagle Base alone.

The jobs are some of the best in Bosnia. Interpreters make the most money, as much as $1,000 a month, about five times the average salary in Bosnia.

In a sign of how times have changed for the Army, soldiers can take courses in personal development. Topics range from “Speaking Up for Yourself in Today’s Military” to “Effective Coping Through the Buddy System.”

Placards at Eagle’s mess hall warn soldiers how to prevent suicide and recognize the dangers of “combat stress.”

“They try to make it as nice as they can for us,” said Spc. Michael Hutchinson, a medic from Macon. “They try so much to keep up morale. It’s kind of hard when you have limited personnel and someone has to go out and pull guard duty or something.

“But they’re doing the best they can to make us happy.”

Limited contact with residents

Except for those few on patrol, most American soldiers rarely mix with the local population, and then only under supervised conditions.

But senior American officers say they want to give troops a taste of the local culture, and describe occasional shopping trips to Dubrave, a village outside Eagle, or nights out in Tuzla, about 45 minutes away by bus. Excursions to Sarajevo occur about once a month, where soldiers get a chance to tour the city and eat dinner in a restaurant.

Many soldiers say what they find outside the wire is not what they expect.

“They’re very friendly,” said 1st Lt. Jason Smith of Atlanta, describing the local population, which is primarily Muslim.

“I’ve been to Serb and Croat areas where they’re nowhere near as friendly. It’s not that they’re hostile to us, but they don’t go out of their way to be friendly to us either.”

Even so, most troops would love to get outside more often.

“Any guy here will tell you that,” Smith said.

“That’s the one thing we really don’t understand,” McCarey said. “Why we’re still locked down, why we don’t have open gates.”

But some troops find ways to cross cultural barriers.

Sgt. Ken Blackstone of Hawkinsville and Spc. Willie Glover of Augusta spend their days manning a watch tower that overlooks Dubrave.

“Glover here has become sort of a diplomat,” Blackstone said. “He’s gotten quite friendly with this guy who lives over there. The guy will come by, and they’ll just talk for hours.”

Glover said the conversations are about everyday occurrences.

“We’ll basically talk about how his mother is doing,” Glover said. “He tells me everything that is going on in the neighborhood and how peaceful it is, and how thankful he is that the Americans are here.”

And despite the long, idle hours, many soldiers say hearing those sentiments makes all the difference.

“It doesn’t seem like you’re accomplishing much until you look at the bigger picture,” said Spc. John Davis of Milledgeville, as he sat at another isolated post.

“You know, you hear stories about what happened during the war and how bad it was. If me doing this little part helps, then I’ll gladly give up six months of my life to do it.”


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