U.S. troops focus on job amid misery in Somalia

December 21, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Staff Writer

UANLE UEN, Somalia -- The small convoy carrying Lt. Scott Criswell's security team kicked up huge clouds of dirt as it made an abrupt stop in the center of town and promptly drew a mob of more than 100 cheering and clapping children, many of them clad in turquoise T-shirts.

Suddenly, Sgt. Rich Helms, the 23-year-old assistant team leader, announced: "Chinese SK in the doorway."

None of the soldiers got excited. They had seen the automatic rifle and many others in this town before. Someone remarked that more guns seemed to surface with each visit, and others nodded in agreement.

As the soldiers jumped out of their vehicles, sweating heavily in their flak jackets and helmets and clutching their M-16 rifles, the lieutenant shouted his orders: "Just like the last time: Don't let them too close to the vehicles, don't put your finger on the trigger, don't do anything threatening."

This is not the kind of operation for which these soldiers were trained.

"We're a long-range surveillance unit, trained to go 50 to 100 miles behind enemy lines," explained Spec. Matthew Veader, 25, of New Gloucester, Maine.

They came here on short notice because Maj. Martin Stantin, chief of U.S. Army operations in the area, wanted another meeting with local elders in the village. The 10th Mountain Division, which has taken control of the Bale Dogle airstrip about a mile away, wants to be a good neighbor.

While the major, his aides, a bodyguard and more than a dozen village elders met inside what appeared to be the local government building, about a dozen soldiers stood guard around their three military vehicles.

The elders passed on a wish list to the U.S. officer, seeking tools, food, generators, seeds and restoration of the town's extensive but dysfunctional water-well system.

"Here's the idea: the great man cometh, so let's score big with the goodies," one of the meeting's participants said later. The major made no promises, but he said some help would be coming.

At an initial meeting shortly after troops arrived at the Bale Dogle airstrip Dec. 12, U.S. military officials expected the townspeople to hand over their weapons in full view of the news media. Instead, the village elders asked if the U.S. troops had any jobs to offer.

Major Stantin met with them again Wednesday to discuss reports that there were Soviet minefields near the airstrip. The Soviets had built the strip back in the days when they were the patrons of former Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre.

The village elders were unable to confirm the reports, soldiers said.

On this day, standing by the military vehicles was a cross section of local folk, including healthy, enterprising children hawking cartons of cigarettes and many other children whose bellies were swollen from hunger.

Joining the crowd were mothers, some with tiny infants shrouded on their backs, several old men and only a few younger ones, some of them carrying rifles and virtually all of them chewing khat, the long-stemmed green plants that give them an amphetamine high.

"Holster at 9 o'clock," Lieutenant Criswell told Sgt. Steven Hilliard, who was busy scanning the rooftops for snipers.

A man in long shirttails staggered by, clearly drugged. The bulge at his waist seemed to resemble a pistol, but no one made a move to frisk him as he stopped, looked at the sergeant and moved on.

Sergeant Hilliard, 30, of Alamogordo, N.M., is the team's only black American. "I get a lot of stares," he said, still scanning the rooftops. "I try not to look right back in their eyes."

The U.S. troops were warned that the sight of starving Somalis would affect them emotionally, dulling their combat-readiness. "So I need to look past the poverty and sickness to keep me focused on my mission," the sergeant said.

Spec. Todd Heier, of Bolivar, Mo., told of someone who asked him for help during a visit to the town the day before.

"He was missing two fingers, and he opened up his shirt. His left armpit had rotted and there was nothing I could do for him," he said.

One of the children handed Spec. David Florio, 23, of Detroit, a dollar-sized handbill that had been airdropped earlier by U.S. forces. It depicted Uncle Sam shaking hands with a Somali man and the flags of their two nations.

"Do you think there's germs on this?" the specialist asked the others.

As Major Stantin left the 30-minute meeting and took a seat in the first humvee with his aides, Lieutenant Criswell shouted: "Mount! Let's get going!"

Out of the crowd, a young Somalian boy in a turquoise T-shirt mimicked, "Mount up."

But he wasn't going anywhere.

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