- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

Vincent duCellier had lived most of his life in Maryland. He and his wife raised six children here, and he worked most of his 40 years as a police officer in Prince George's County.

But the Smithsburg, Md., man did not fully appreciate his homeland until he was 61 years old and volunteered for a mission that took him to Kosovo last September.

"Every American should have an experience of coming to a place and participating in something like this," Officer duCellier said in a telephone interview from Kosovo recently.

Increasing violence between Serbians and Albanians prompted the United Nations to send troops to monitor an uneasy peace in what had once been Yugoslavia, torn by war throughout the 1990s. In January, the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion of Maryland became part of the first national guard unit ever to command foreign military forces.

However, international leaders needed experienced people to conduct routine police work in the cities work such as directing traffic, investigating burglaries, tracking down arsonists, rapists and murderers, and keeping them in jail.

Officer duCellier was one of the first to volunteer.

"It would be a chance for me to do something I would [otherwise] never do," Officer duCellier said.

"When I signed up for the mission, I thought that I might meet some new people, see a few new places, and generally do a lot of what I've been doing for the last 40 years… . But I did not realize then that I would learn lessons to last a lifetime, or that this would be a profound experience with profound lessons to be learned," he wrote in a letter to his wife, Toby Jean "TJ" duCellier. The letter recently appeared in The Washington Times.

"Simply put, I will never be the same. Things once quite important to me now seem trivial, and I will never again complain about the food I eat or what creature comforts I have or don't have. And I will never again be less than God-Almighty thankful for having been born an American."

He was among the first 500 police officers to enter Kosovo. Now there are 3,000 police officers from 42 countries. The U.S. officers are the largest contingent.

"We are the police," said Officer duCellier, commander of the 36 officers who guard 65 prisoners in the jail at Mitrovica, about 115 miles south of Belgrade. More than half the prisoners are Serbians, accused of such war crimes as mass murder, genocide and arson. The Albanians are mostly charged with theft, weapons possession and attempted murder.

"I've never before had to drag out whatever little bit of talent I have every day. It's a huge challenge," Officer duCellier said.

Police in Kosovo work 30 days straight, then get six days off duty. Officer duCellier has worked 48 days straight. Once, he couldn't buy food anywhere until a Russian officer persuaded the U.S. Commissary to sell to nonmilitary personnel.

"I've commanded a lot of different men and women during my career, but never such a diverse group as this one," said Officer duCellier, who was born in Philadelphia and moved to Prince George's County as a boy.

He was a part-time shoe salesman working on his psychology degree at the University of Maryland in 1958 when he was invited to join the Prince George's County Police Department. By the time he retired in 1988, Officer duCellier was deputy chief. Then, for five years, he was police chief in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.; finally, he was chief in Smithsburg before retiring again.

Police work is now part of the duCellier tradition. Two sons and a son-in-law are officers at Bowie and Calvert County, a daughter is engaged to a policeman and the youngest daughter is considering a police career, Mrs. duCellier said.

"I miss him terribly," Mrs. duCellier said recently from their Smithsburg home. "He keeps telling me, 'Don't worry. I'm safe.' "

Officer duCellier rents a room from an Albanian family. At first, "finding food was just impossible," Mrs. duCellier said. "The family would leave fruit and a loaf of bread by his door."

She talks to her husband frequently and sends hot-rod magazines regularly so he will be ready to resume restoration of his 1965 Chevrolet when he returns.

But that may be further away than Mrs. duCellier anticipated. Officer duCellier had volunteered for a one-year stint in Kosovo that was scheduled to end in late September, but he has extended his stay until September 2001.

His family, while anxious for his return, is not opposed to his decision to go or to stay longer. His 85-year-old widowed mother, Eleanor, of Berkeley Springs, writes a daily letter and sends crossword puzzles, Mrs. duCellier said.

"I tell you, it's a kick," Officer duCellier said. "It's not D.C. It's not [Prince George's]," most obviously because the provincial capital of Pristina has no water, no garbage collection and few other services routinely offered in the United States.

Perhaps the most powerful and insoluble problem, he says, is ethnic prejudice, the hatred that is clearly evident between Serbians and Albanians.

In the letter to his wife, Officer duCellier wrote, "America has its own deplorable history of disdain, dislike and hatred between the races, but it doesn't begin to reach to the depths of what I see here. The hatred here has been going on for centuries.

"For someone raised to believe that we are all born to a race and adopt a culture, I find this hatred deplorable. I have always tried to respect a person's race and understand their culture, and the utter lack of such understanding here baffles and saddens me."

Officer duCellier wrote about how damaging that hatred could be:

On the 10th day while picking up his mail, "the medical assistant there came to the mailroom with a young man of 16… . The boy was totally paralyzed on the right side as the result of a beating by the Serbian police a year earlier, and had only limited use of his left side.

"He is Albanian. This was his crime, and so the Serbian police under [Slobodan] Milosevic broke his neck.

" … The doc put the boy on his back, on the mats … giving him physical therapy … attempt to teach the boy how to roll over on his side. For an hour, the boy tried, over and over, to roll to his side. He was sweating, shaking, nearly crying with the effort."

His experience has given him a profound gratitude for what he's had.

"We all miss our families and friends. We miss the things in America that we take for granted running water at the turn of a spigot (hot water at that). Electricity at the flip of a switch, and all it brings us. Food of every kind, in abundance. Good roads and easy transportation. Safety in our homes and offices. No one shooting at us or throwing grenades into our buses.

"I have found that some people from other countries think we are arrogant, that we do not appreciate all that we have in America. They resent our complaining and our habit of demanding what we want.

"When I was last home and attended the meeting of the Smithsburg Lions Club, we sang, 'Oh Beautiful, For Spacious Skies.'

"Remember? 'America, America, God shed his grace on thee.'

"Sweetheart, He has."

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