GIs in Bosnia: Too Lax for the Dangers?
GRADACAC, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — FROM the soldiers' perspective, the American deployment in Bosnia is settling down to a comfortable hum of activity: routine patrols, and setting up and decorating living quarters. The chief concerns are mail, phone calls, and laundry. Contacts with locals are few but friendly - a lot of smiling.
But from the perspective of an Army colonel, Bosnia looks very different. ''There are no good guys here,'' says Lt. Col. Pete Corpac, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Field Artillery of the 1st Armored Division. ''Cooperation with the different militaries has been fairly good. But these young Americans are still very vulnerable. I still have to worry about these guys getting shot.''
The colonel's concern seems even more justified now that the American forces have suffered their first fatality. Sgt. Donald Allen Dugan, assigned to the same 1st Armored Division, was killed in an explosion Feb. 3 while manning a checkpoint near Gradacac.
On a tour of his troops here in the area north of Tuzla, the colonel stops first at Gradacac. The sign announcing the town is as bullet-ridden as the buildings. Somehow the Army has found a large industrial building that is structurally sound and put it to use.
The building houses a service battery, which provides food, fuel, ammunition, and other supplies, and a battery of gunners.
As Colonel Corpac critiques the deployment with his officers, his first concern is the guard at the gate: The guard is too isolated. ''I could have just come up to him and shot him,'' Corpac says.
They discuss how to bring the guard closer to the main building.
Corpac doesn't like the looks of the road at the back of the compound, an easy access for troublemakers. ''Let's shut that road off,'' he orders.
Several houses, apparently inhabited, are nearby. ''Get yourself a translator,'' he tells one of his commanders, ''and go introduce yourself as the new neighbor. Find out who lives there. Ask if there's anything you can do.''
Meanwhile, inside, the men are fixing up their living quarters - heated, wood-floored tents set up inside the vast concrete building. A number of the men have wicker furniture from a factory just up the road; some of them traded for it with chocolate-chip cookies. ''Make your place a palace,'' is the colonel's counsel. He's already got a spot picked out for the indoor basketball court.
Corpac's next stop is to visit an artillery battery set up amid the remains of a war-blasted village. It's an unusual deployment: The big guns are more typically set out in open fields. Deploying in a built-up area has disadvantages, including a narrower firing range. But the ruined buildings provide shelter not only from attack but from the elements.
Again, he critiques the setup: A sandbagged foxhole in front of one of the howitzer guns attracts the colonel's attention. ''Now that looks pretty,'' he begins, and anyone listening can tell that this is not a compliment. He explains that in a defensive mode, the soldiers would be better off inside the howitzer.
The colonel asks a howitzer crew what they know about ''D+45'' - the just-passed deadline for ''areas of transfer'' to be turned over from one side to the other in the Bosnian conflict. Not much, it seems. ''A lot of nice people will be passing through here, and a lot of not-nice people,'' the colonel says. Soldiers in the field need information from the intelligence briefings for a sense of the big picture, Corpac tells an aide.
His third and last stop is to watch a battery of howitzers set up in a snow-covered cornfield. It was here a couple of weeks ago that someone drove by and tossed a hand grenade at a group of American soldiers. The grenade didn't do any damage, but the commander ordered a battery of four vehicles to make a tour of the town center nearby. ''A little show of force,'' the commander explains.
Unlike some other NATO forces, which allow troops to patrol in single vehicles, Americans go out in fours. ''If we portray a professional, disciplined, trained unit, the [warring] factions are in awe,'' Corpac says.
The Tuzla Air Base is the headquarters for the American forces in Bosnia, but troops are scattered all over the northeastern part of the country, with camps and bases established wherever structurally sound empty buildings could be found: at a former soft-drink factory, in a motel, in abandoned houses.
''When this is over,'' an artillery man says, ''we're gonna ask people, 'Were you in Tuzla? Or were you in Bosnia?' '' Those stationed in Tuzla itself are widely perceived by those in the outposts as having it soft - hot showers, television, even phones that accept AT&T credit cards. They also get better mail service.
''Soldiers have certain basic needs: You've got to feed them, keep them warm, and get them mail. You give them that, and they'll do anything for you,'' says Sgt. Earnest Bullock of Durham, N.C., stationed at one of the outlying bases. ''Right now mail is the No.1 priority for every soldier in the theater.''
The soldiers' spiritual needs are also being tended to. Lt. Col. William Robertson of Anderson, S.C., is the chaplain for the 22nd Signal Brigade. He travels with the regular weekly supply convoys to outlying bases to conduct brief, informal religious services for the soldiers - whatever day of the week he can. ''In the Army, every day is Sunday,'' he quips. One day recently he built a service around the 23rd Psalm: The reference to ''the valley of the shadow of death'' was particularly poignant in this ethnically cleansed landscape.
However daunting the scenes of death and destruction, many of the soldiers seem to have been braced for things to be even worse. Lt. Todd Jones of Houston says, ''I was skeptical about the mission at first, until I saw the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where they have all the pictures from the children of Sarajevo. Pictures of Mom and Dad, and the house blown up, and little brother lying dead on the sidewalk.
''If there's a reason we should be here, that's the reason - the children, the innocents who are suffering.''