Monday, November 15, 2004

GNJILANE, Serbia-Montenegro — In a model operation reflecting what had once been hoped for in Iraq, U.S. troops in Kosovo are busy building roads, teaching English and making friends with residents who are still grateful for NATO’s intervention in the Balkan province.

During a recent scout patrol by national guardsmen in the town of Gnjilane, Sgt. Scott Paulik picked up a small boy and held him aloft in a playful greeting while the boy’s father, the town baker, looked on approvingly.

“He is a regular,” said the 22-year-old soldier from Lima, Ohio. “If we don’t watch, he’ll tag along with us and keep following us for blocks and blocks.”

The smiling youngster is one of only about 30 Serbs still living in the town five years after U.S. air strikes drove Serbian military forces from the province, which is technically still part of Serbia.

His evident trust of the foreign soldier spoke volumes about the rapport that U.S. peacekeeping troops have established with all communities in Kosovo, Christian and Muslim alike.

Three years ago, a reporter passing through Gnjilane watched U.S. troops from Kosovo’s KFOR peacekeeping force patrol in helmets and flak jackets behind armored personnel carriers, nervously deploying attack dogs during a small demonstration to mark Albanian flag day.

Today, the guardsmen on scout patrol wear forage caps in place of helmets and leave their Teflon body armor at their base, Camp Montieth. They say the experiences of previous American and other peacekeepers have helped them to gauge the real threat level in the province, which is generally low.

“We expected to walk around, waiting for something bad to happen,” said Sgt. Paulik, a carpenter in civilian life, “but most of us — including me — walk with our weapons slung over our backs.

“Most of the public are thrilled with us, not only with KFOR, but with us as Americans. When they see the American flag on our shoulders, they are happy.”

Lt. Mike Bell, who is in charge of sending out such patrols, evidently enjoys the change of pace after an eight-month tour in Iraq.

“Basically, they walk around and look for anything unusual,” said the 31-year-old from Akron, Ohio.

Most of the 1,800 American soldiers in Kosovo are guardsmen or reservists from Ohio, Kentucky or South Carolina.

The guardsmen were accompanied on their patrol through Gnjilane by Albina Sylaj, an ethnic-Albanian translator who also wore fatigues and slouch cap.

“Most people speak English, but we don’t like to be ugly Americans, so we use an interpreter,” Lt. Bell explained.

Sgt. Matthew Goedde, a farm-equipment welder in civilian life from Kalida, Ohio, also appreciates the warm reception that the American soldiers receive as they snake through the crowded main street.

“It is a lot less hostile than the environment that we were trained for, so that makes it kind of nice, but you never let down your guard. You get an [angry] farmer once in a while. They’re not mad at us, they just don’t want to talk. There is nothing you can do about it.”

Often, the scouts carry candy to hand out to children, who can be useful sources of intelligence.

“You find a kid who knows something and give him candy, and he’ll sing like a bird,” said Sgt. Goedde, 23.

In spite of the relaxed atmosphere, Lt. Bell pointed out that the previous rotation of U.S. peacekeepers was tested in March when ethnic-Albanian mobs rampaged through Serbian villages, leaving 19 persons dead and torching hundreds of Serbian homes and churches.

In Gnjilane’s small Serbian neighborhood, “a small group of soldiers, 20 or so, held off 50 rioters who set a house on fire. The couple were rescued, and the house has been rebuilt,” he said.

However, the troops were unable to save a 52-year-old Serb who died while defending his 70-year-old mother.

Lt. Col. Gordon Ellis, commander of Task Force Shield based at Camp Montieth, said that since then, U.S. troops in Kosovo “have developed several extensive contingency-planning initiatives” for riot control involving nonlethal force.

Col. Ellis, 43, also has utilized skills learned in his civilian job as chief of police in Austintown, Ohio.

“Some of our soldiers from an engineering unit are assisting with road maintenance,” he said. “Being National Guard, several of us are teachers. We have started a school-improvement program through teaching English.

“Being a police officer, you come to the table with an understanding of local police problems. We have conducted a joint operation with U.N. police and local police that involved cattle rustling across the boundary. It was pretty successful, a number of people were detained.

“Generally, our troops are well-received. There is a perception that the American forces here are fair in nature. The biggest issue is, you have to maintain your vigilance because of what happened in March.”

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