How GI Joes Will Wade Into Bog Of a Bosnia Peace

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE on-base Burger King at Grafenwohr Training Center last week ran out of hamburgers and milk shakes.

More than 10,000 American soldiers - 2-1/2 times the usual count - have been training daily over the past couple of weeks in this otherwise bucolic corner of southern Germany. More are on the way.

If United States troops are sent to Bosnia as part of a 60,000-strong NATO force, these soldiers will be among the first to go. The men out on maneuvers under the brilliant October sky could be eating their Christmas dinner, if not their Thanksgiving turkey, in the Balkans.

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No peace accord has been signed yet, and Congress still has to approve the mission. Up and down the chain of command, the word is, ''This is training we do anyway. It's not a waste if we don't go.'' But everyone is physically and mentally gearing to be sent to Bosnia.

Gen. William Crouch, commander of the Seventh Army in Europe, warned the troops, ''You should prepare yourselves, your equipment, and your families'' for the possibility of assignment to Bosnia.

Soldiers take such a message ''very, very seriously,'' says Capt. Robert Hastings of the Army's V Corps headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany.

Absent a peace accord, the troops don't have specific rules of engagement. Yet ''the key to this is parallel planning,'' says Captain Hastings. Defense Department planners ''aren't waiting for a treaty to be signed.''

Next week, negotiators will try to get that accomplished as leaders of the former Yugoslavia gather in Ohio for talks led by US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt. And US and Russian defense chiefs met yesterday in Washington to coordinate the command of NATO and Russian forces, which will both play a role in enforcing a Bosnia peace treaty.

Confidence boosting

At Graf, the soldiers are putting howitzers, tanks, and Bradley fighting vehicles through their paces. Staff Sgt. Tyrone Bolden, a Gulf war veteran, is training his tank gunners on one of the special ranges at this remote site. ''I want to be sure my troops are confident of getting out of any situation they get into,'' he says.

Such situations could range from stopping civilians at checkpoints to knowing how to react to sniper fire, all in challenging rugged territory. The troops' role will be all the more complicated against the former Yugoslavia's backdrop of religious and ethnic hatreds.

''Deploy tanks and peace will follow,'' predicts Capt. Marco Conners as he supervises troops setting up a mock checkpoint.

The expectation here is that any forces sent in would be well-armored, with M1A1 tanks like Sergeant Bolden's. ''This is a NATO mission, not a UN mission,'' says Lt. Col. William Blankmeyer.

Since the former Yugoslavia is filled with mine fields, often undocumented ones, the soldiers are also training in what the Army calls ''mine awareness.''

Every day here a live mine is detonated to impress the troops. The detonations ''get the soldiers in the mood'' to learn how to avoid mines, says SFC Bruce Lilygren. He speaks just minutes after an M15 antitank mine has reduced an aging vehicle to scrap metal sprayed across an open field.

But as a peace-enforcement mission, it would be geared to the use of minimum force, says Colonel Blankmeyer. The training also involves practicing subtle negotiating skills, which soldiers will need to maintain checkpoints along the ''zone of separation'' intended to hold the warring factions apart in Bosnia.

Young soldiers deployed in twos and threes at a checkpoint, supported by a tank just a stone's throw away, will have to challenge all who come through, whether civilians, a convoy, or even armed partisans.

The soldiers ''will be ambassadors for the US.... They love to be flexible, to be the ones negotiating with civilians, with the media,'' Blankmeyer says enthusiastically. But clearly it will not be easy for soldiers to confront potentially hostile locals across a language gap.

The training in this exercise, Operation Mountain Eagle, set to run until mid-November, includes ''role playing'': Soldiers in sweatshirts, to set them apart from the others in their fatigues, pretend to be locals approaching the checkpoint.

In one scenario, two men, one wounded in the leg, trudge up to the checkpoint. They communicate in sign language with the soldiers there, who call for help for the wounded man.

Asking for ID

Unarmed wounded civilians are not thought likely to be the most serious challenge for Americans in Bosnia. But another role-play shows a potentially more dangerous scenario: Four members of the rifle-toting ''national forces'' of ''Slowenia,'' as the pretend-Bosnia is being called, troop up to the checkpoint. The Americans engage them with conversation, not gunfire, and successfully ''escort'' them through the checkpoint.

Shouldn't the soldiers have disarmed them? No, the answer comes back; this scenario allows people to carry a single ''personal'' weapon, even if it's an AK-47.

''What are we accepting for ID?'' a soldier at the checkpoint calls over to his commander. ''At this point, any photo ID is OK,'' comes the response.

Crucial details. All parties in the former Yugoslavia have proved adept at putting United Nations peacekeepers in difficult situations. If US troops draw sniper fire from an apartment building, do they shoot back? If artillery fire goes over US troops' heads at another group, do troops intervene - or only if they themselves are hit?

Above all, the Americans will try to avoid ''mission creep,'' where outside forces start out as neutral peace enforcers but end up as parties to the dispute.

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