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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.