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Deployed to Kosovo

May 05, 2015

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14927.jpg (74631 bytes)Kosovo Photo Galleries

While I was assigned to the hospital in Heidelberg, I was also attached to the 254th Combat Stress Control Unit (CSC) as a filler personnel.

The 254th is a very small unit.  Over half of its personnel come from other units.   Because I was one of the chosen I could be called up to go to any hotspot in the theater with very little notice.  Usually I would be on stand-by for one month twice a year.  However, there was no guarantee I would not be called at other times as well.

For a period of several months I was on alert to deploy to Kosovo.  After standing by a couple weeks I would receive a telephone call or an e-mail telling me to stand-down because nobody was going anywhere.  A little while later I would be on alert again.   This cycle really frustrated to me because  I did not know if I was coming or going.  In the Spring of 2000 I was told to get ready.  By that time my attitude was 'I will believe it when it happens.'  It happened...

I was given about five days notice to get ready and be at the 254th.  Because I had been alerted so many times in the not too distant past, I did not need much time to pack my bags, have a will prepared, get my shots, etc.  Most of my affairs were already taken care of.

At the 254th I met with LTC Johansen from Landstuhl who was also being deployed.  We flew from Germany on a Saturday and landed in Macedonia.  Upon arrival we began the customary "hurry up and wait" while we were being processed into the theater.  Overall it was a relatively painless process.  Other than one of my bags disappearing for a couple days, everything went smoothly.

From Macedonia we took a bus to Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo.  I was awestruck by the countryside.  I thought I was going into a country that would be pretty much devastated.  This was true in certain areas, but overall the landscape was really beautiful.  Because of this I kept running out of film.  In total I only shot twenty-six rolls because that is all I could get my hands on.  I probably could have shot two hundred rolls without even thinking about it.

15369.jpg (34120 bytes)While on the bus, LTC Johansen asked me several questions about the area.   For example, she asked me why there were so many stray dogs around.  To each of her questions I looked at her like 'Why would I know that?'  The next day she had similar questions for me.  And for a second day my answers consisted of 'Um... I do not know?'

Finally she made it clear that part of my responsibilities were to always have an answer.  So from then on I worked hard to contrive plausible answers for her questions in spite of having no idea what I was talking about.  She was satisfied with that.

I really enjoyed working with LTC Johansen.  She had a lot of energy and was truly fun to be around.  She also knew when to crack the whip so people knew not to take advantage of her kindness.

Unfortunately, this same energy attracted men to her in droves.  It seemed every officer on Bondsteel was coming up with lame excuses to visit our tent to talk to her.  Normally she would give them the time of day and send them off.

14959.jpg (46999 bytes)Camp Bondsteel surprised me.  There were several permanent buildings in place as well as a large number of SEAHUTS (sleeping quarters).  There was construction all over the base and the conditions were far and above what I had expected.

There were several mess tents, gyms, laundry facilities as well as typical warehouse buildings.  Each of the SEAHUTS had several living quarters as well as full shower facilities.  Each room housed six soldiers.

There was at least one mess hall on Camp Bondsteel that was open 24 hours every day.   They had a hot food line so that soldiers returning from sector could get a meal at any time.  The food was always good.  I never felt like Oliver Twist asking for more because they fed us well.

In addition soldiers could go to any of the mess tents and stock up on sodas, ice cream or other goodies to take back to their quarters or to their site.  As a tax-payer, I thought the Army had gone a little overboard in terms of these types of benefits, but as a soldier I had no problem with it.

The first two or three days after arrival we were oriented to the base and our mission.  Immediately after that we were put to work.  Kosovo is divided into several sectors, each of which is the responsibility of a different contingent.  Camp Bondsteel had the largest population of soldiers and handled the most densely populated sector in Kosovo.  My job was to travel to the numerous outposts in our sector and address mental health issues.

No two outposts were alike.  Some were manned by a squad of seven to ten soldiers who ate, slept and performed personal hygiene in the same room which may have been a small barn in a former life.  In other locations there was an entire company occupying a warehouse complex.  The soldiers rotated periodically to prevent them from being in a poor location for too long.  The task force did not want the soldiers who were being housed in dorms to get too comfortable either.

My mission entailed several things.  I talked to soldiers to get a feel for their overall morale.  I also identified soldiers who were having problems 15110.jpg (23865 bytes)and may need individual therapy or another intervention.  Sometimes I would provide on-the-spot counseling.  Occasionally the soldier would get an appointment to see LTC Johansen.  I also reported my findings to the chain of command on a weekly basis.

The 212th MASH was deployed to Kosovo prior to my arrival.  Ultimately I was reassigned from the 254th to the 212th.  I ended up getting to know many of the medics and doctors in the three months I was there.  I knew a handful of them from a previous field exercise I had attended with these units.  The 212th took me in as one of their own which made my time in Kosovo much better than it might have been otherwise.

14888.jpg (38442 bytes)Getting around our sector presented a challenge.  The Combat Stress Control section did not have its own vehicle so we were tasked to find transportation in other ways.  Normally I would hike up to the Military Police and see if they had a seat available for the day.  There was also an Air Force Air Evacuation section in the tent next to us.  They had their own vehicles so sometimes I could ride with them.

There were days that I would stay with the MPs and talk to soldiers whenever we stopped.  Other days the MP's would drop me off at a site and return to pick me up on their way back to camp.  Occasionally something would happen that would prevent them from returning to pick me up.  This never spelled disaster because in the worse case I could get a ride back on the chow truck in the evening.  I could have stayed overnight as well, but I was lucky as there was always someone heading to Bondsteel.

Whenever I arrived at an outpost, the first thing I would do is find the senior person there and let them know I was in the area and what I was doing.  He would brief me on any issues he knew about and sometimes point me in the direction of particular soldiers he felt were having problems.  If he felt all was well, I would talk to the various soldiers that were about and observe them at work.

14868.jpg (46454 bytes)For the most part I was received well.  In past deployments and exercises, the mental health guys were treated like we carried bubonic plague and were avoided as such.  Army leadership has begun to realize that we perform an important function and can be a strong factor in their unit staying focused on the mission.

Still, there is always that one soldier who has to mess with the mental health guy.  This time it was a Corporal looking for ways to humiliate me.  I am not sure what his issue was because when someone decides they do not like me before we've exchanged two words, I let it remain their problem.  In this case, I had picked up a pair of binoculars to overlook the area.  I asked him what the lines on the lenses were.  He explained to me that they were range-finding glasses.

Next I asked him how they work to which he replied in an indignant tone, "You should know this.  What are you going to do if you are the last one alive and you have to call in a fire mission??"  My answer to that was, 'Then you did not do your job.'  He did not have much to say after that.  I do not know too many mental health guys who call in artillery fire missions, but he had a point, so I studied up on the binoculars later.

Overall, morale was good throughout the theater.  I think this is because most of the soldiers had never been on a real mission before.  When back in garrison these soldiers usually are kept  occupied performing inventory and maintenance while waiting for something to happen so they can go somewhere.  In Kosovo they had a sense of purpose.  This is not to say that all was well, but overall it was an upbeat environment even with the horrifying events that occurred around us on a daily basis.

14865.jpg (57782 bytes)On a few occasions I had the opportunity to go on foot patrols with the infantry.  In one notable bi-ethnic town, a squad was tasked with escorting the Serbian children to school in the morning and then back home at noon.  They would then escort the Albanian children to and from school in the afternoon.

The children have already been conditioned to the racism in the country.  On these escorts, the children who were not being escorted would set up mini road-blocks to intimidate the others.   They always moved out of the way as the group approached and there was never an incident that I know of.  Even so, it was sad to see that these children are growing up to perpetuate the problems that have torn their country apart.

The adults in the country were a different matter.  On a daily basis we were hearing stories of snipers or the "Mad Mortarman."  The Mad Mortarman was one or more persons in the area who would move around the hills firing mortars down on U.S. occupied areas and people's homes around the countryside.

He must have been a lousy shot because I never heard of him actually hitting anything.  Unfortunately, some of the Kosovars had better aim.  UH-60 Blackhawks and Field Litter Ambulances came in regularly with the injured and wounded.   Sometimes they brought one of our soldiers who had been hurt in an accident, but too frequently it was someone with gunshot or shrapnel wounds.

14899.jpg (51360 bytes)In one case an elderly Albanian gentleman who was severely psychotic was brought to the hospital after being riddled with pellets from a bomb he built.  Apparently he thought that his wife and mother-in-law found him to be a burden and were plotting to take him out.  He decided to strike first.  He was the only person injured in the blast.

I was called in to perform a mental status evaluation of the man which was almost comedic.  It is not easy to provide mental health care to a psychotic person through a translator.  I also talked to his wife who was understandably very upset with the whole incident.  After talking to her for a while, I did not believe that she had plans to harm her husband.  I think he was simply losing his mind.

14858.jpg (79271 bytes)One of the really sad things that I witnessed was the veterinarians traveling around the country putting stray dogs to sleep.  I understand why they did it, but I still did not like it.  Some of the outposts had adopted a dog as a mascot.  One day I was doing my rounds with the vet and he took one of these dogs.  The lieutenant almost got into a fist fight with him and it generally wasn't a good scene.

I did not have a lot of pull in these matters, but when I got back I wrote a report suggesting that they allow each outpost to have a mascot as a morale builder.  It makes sense to me that the cost of giving a few dogs their shots and feeding them is a small price to pay for the soldiers to have a creature of comfort with them.  I do not know what happened with this request, but I suspect it was permanently filed somewhere.

One of the first people I met when I arrived at Camp Bondsteel was a little girl named Ivana.   The story related to me by the medics was that Ivana had been playing soccer with some of her friends one day when a sniper opened fire at them with an assault rifle.  There were no adults in the area so he was deliberately shooting at children.

Ivana was hit three times; once in each arm and once in the leg.  I have no idea how she survived.   I doubt I would have survived three rounds from an AK-47, but somehow she did.  In case you do not know, an AK-47 is the weapon the Soviet Army issued to her soldiers.

15141.jpg (53308 bytes)Dr. Garver, also assigned from Heidelberg, performed her surgery with his team and miraculously saved her life.  He is the same man who performed my knee surgery the previous summer.  Dr. Garver is one of too few people who is truly dedicated to what he is doing.  I highly respect him for that.

Medics in Heidelberg told me he frustrated them because he took so much time in surgery.  They said he was very compulsive about his work.  Personally, I do not see a problem with that.

Ivana received cards and packages from people all over the world.  I do not think I have ever seen so many stuffed bears outside a toy store before.  She was a very nice little girl and always greeted everyone with a smile.  She and her mother were kind enough to go outside the hospital with me so I could photograph her.

Overall my tour in Kosovo was my most satisfying Army experience.  Although the country has a multitude of problems, the people continue to carry on.  I often saw them playing together.  I even saw a very old man out playing soccer with school children one day.  He had a big toothless grin that made me smile as well.

Unfortunately, many of these people have lost everything that is important to them.  I try to keep this in mind when thinking of my own problems because in comparison a roommate who leaves my milk out is not really a big deal.  In spite of the fact that killing each other has become a way of life for them, the Kosovars that I met were good people.  I only hope that one day they resolve their differences so they can build again instead of tearing things down.



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