What has to be the most pro-American country on the globe outside of North America celebrated its first birthday on February 17.
If George W. Bush ever needs a near fully-friendly venue, he can travel to Kosovo.
As can Bill Clinton, whose giant visage beams down on Bill Clinton Boulevard in the capitol city of Pristina.
Kosovars love America and Americans, or at least the vast, vast majority of them do. I spent three days with the men and women of the 40th Infantry Division at its base at Camp Bondsteel this past week, and in long travels with various elements of the National Guard units doing the work of peacekeeping in their sector, came in contact with Serbs, Albanians, and Roma; with Muslims, Orthodox and Serbs, with the secular and the sectarian. Not a negative word was heard, but many Kosovars were eager to tell me of their love for America.
It is a bipartisan love --they love President Obama as well as Presidents Bush and Clinton-- and it frames a country that is increasingly stable and maturing, thanks in large part to the professionalism and dedication of America’s citizen-soldiers who have been shouldering much of the U.S.’s share of the burden in Kosovo for the past many years. The 40th I.D. is on its second year-long deployment in the country in four years, both of which have occurred since the most recent round of ethnic violence in 2004. Veterans of both deployments admire the amazing progress on the ground throughout the region that occurred in the years they were home in the U.S. American forces have the lead only in the eastern region of the country, while large contingents of French, Irish, and Greeks patrol other regions, and units from Poland, Ukraine, and Slovenia are assisting the American troops in their duties in Multi-National Task Force-East.
Those duties have not had to include the suppression of violence in recent years, but focus rather on the “soft power” of extraordinarily competent assistance in nation-building. On the second day of my visit, Major Westerfield of the California 1-18 Cavalry and Task Force Sabre was providing expert and experienced counsel in a touchy situation where the mayor and the judiciary of one town found themselves on opposite sides of a dispute. This is the routine business of land-use in ten thousand American cities, but it is all new in a new country, and it perfectly illustrates the sorts of problem sets the approximately 1,500 American troops at Camp Bondsteel deal with every day.
“Every day” means that most soldiers are working at least six days a week and far more hours on each of those days than in their lives as civilians. They do so cheerfully and with an enthusiasm for helping a new country “stand-up” that is surprising and inspiring. You may have seen a lot of ads for the National Guard, but until you spend many hours with them on a patrol, it is impossible to fully appreciate who they are and what they do.
Sgt. Darren Deucore is on his third deployment in six years –the first two having been in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. Sgt. Deucore has 18 years in the Guard and six before that as a Marine. He has three children, aged 11, 8, and 5, and drives heavy equipment when he’s home in San Diego. He didn’t anticipate this sort of deployment tempo when he joined the Guard and he misses his wife and family deeply, but he is dedicated to his job and does it with a quiet competence that is the mark of the American Noncomissioned Officer.
Lt. Bryan Pauley is an engineer with Chevron, on his first deployment for the Guard. A 2001 graduate of San Clemente High School and then UCLA, he is not only deeply versed in Balkan history, but an avid reader of classics with an eye on a joint PhD-MBA with an emphasis in chemical engineering down the road. Lt. Pauley moved easily and assuredly through our long trip through Task Force Sabre’s sector which includes a stop at a border post where Kosovo police clear traffic from Serbia and scores of small villages and somewhat larger cities. After only a few months, he knows every road and turn, most of the key clergy and local electeds, as well as the best restaurant in Stubla –Jozefi’s, where Lt. Pauley, Sgt. Deucore and four other troopers chat with the locals about road projects and the summer influx of Kosovars returning from nearby Switzerland for their annual visits. The men of the 1-18th CAV come from a variety of careers and cities in California, but each is a billboard for the U.S.
Captain Eddie Morgan is another example of the sort of citizen soldier that astonishes. Morgan speaks fluent Spanish, Italian and Hebrew, and in his other life directs Easter Seals in Eureka, California. Morgan is one of the leaders of the innovative “LMT” effort, which stands for “Liaison Monitoring Teams,” –groups of soldiers trained in community engagement and problem resolution. In a four-hour plus drive-around on Monday night, Captain Morgan and Specialist Christopher Poe effortlessly navigated the maze of Kosovo roads and on foot the back alleys and nightlife-filled streets of Gjilane as well as the much more sober area of Zhegra.
Captain Morgan is another American expert-in-the-making on all things Kosovo. He is aware of the deep ethnic divisions in the country’s past and the complexity of its current ethnic kaleidoscope. (When I asked about the Roma, he gave a quick couple of direction to Specialist Pope and we were driving slowly through the Roma neighborhood where old grandmothers and young teens were waving to and greeting the captain.) Captain Morgan knows the names of the Serbian priests serving the various Orthodox churches as well as the names and locations of the major employers in the region. He knows the history of the 1999 war and of the 2004 riots. He and Specialist Pope take me to the ruins of burned out Serbian neighborhoods and to the vibrant streets where a summer street rock concert entertains the young generation of MTV Muslims appear to have zero in common with Islamist fundamentalism, especially along PDK Road which is like American Graffiti without the cars. You will find more traditional Islamic dress in every major America city than in any Kosovo metropolis.
Beneath this surface –how far beneath is the crucial question—is a dark violence that is only hinted at by interpreters Fatmir and Ardia, a Muslim and Catholic, who accompanied me on parts of these travels. Some locals talk about 1999. Others about 2004. It is all very, very recent.
“I will be talking with a local about a grievance against a different ethnic group, and she will be full of passion and anger,” Sgt. Raquel Quinonez, a LMT member, “and be ready to alert everyone on the team.”
“Then I find out it happened a decade ago,” she continues. “They are not so quick to forget around here.”
Sgt. Quinonez, who spent a year with the Guard in Iraq, is wise beyond her years and exactly the sort of face Americans should be glad is on display in the Balkans. She’s a full-time student in her civilian life, and much admired among her colleagues at Camp Bondsteel.
There are hundreds more like her: Young men and women who train on weekends and then deploy for a year, only to return to waiting families who have managed without them but not without missing them.
In just the past few weeks Vice President Biden and Governor Palin visited Camp Bondsteel, and both were enthusiastically received and both were much complimented by the troops I spoke with this week. I have no idea what the breakdown is among the citizen-soldiers when it comes to Democrats and Republicans. They are professionals and avoid such subjects as they should except to express thanks for attention on their mission that such visits bring. (Both the Veep and the governor hung with the troops as long as took for pictures and hand shakes and bravo to them both for doing so.)
They and their colleagues around the globe deserve a lot more from the media, old and new, than they have received. In a celebrity-obsessed culture, they are the anti-celebrities, from their commander General Keith Jones and Command Sgt. Major Robert Whittle to the 18 year old in his sixth month of service.
Except in Kosovo, where they are greatly, greatly appreciated. Perhaps it is the newness of freedom that powers the deepest appreciation for those who secure and extend it.
Special thanks to Major Alana Schwermer, SPC Paul Wade and Specialist Rich Stowell for their effort to get me to Camp Bondsteel and then far beyond its gates. (Specialist Stowell, a high school teacher in his civilian life, left wife Esther and 10-month old Joseph for this deployment, another example of the sort of sacrifice the military routinely makes.) And thanks to Lt.Col. Kurt Schlichter for the first invitation to meet the men and women of the 1-18 Cav and for encouraging me to visit them where they work.
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