Rules keep life's pleasures beyond reach of U.S. troops Soldier says Bosnian duty is 'like being in prison'

April 07, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The lights of the Prestige Caffe shine enticingly across the street from the main gate of the U.S. Army's headquarters in Bosnia.

The gaily painted little restaurant is just another reminder that somewhere out there, in the outside world, there are fresh-cooked hamburgers for the ordering and ice-cold beer on tap.

"There's nothing there for us," says Sgt. Cameron Hunt, a sentry from Cypress, Calif., with a jerk of his head toward the Prestige and the pleasures beyond. "We can't drink beer. We have to wear fatigues all the time. I've heard some soldiers say this is like being in prison."

In the fourth month of their peace-enforcement mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, some U.S. soldiers are beginning to chafe under the strict regulations imposed to keep them safe and the controversial mission well away from political trouble.

Americans participating in Operation Joint Endeavor are not allowed a drop of alcohol, even when off duty and even when they're in camps back in peaceful Hungary. Ostentatious flying of the Stars and Stripes is prohibited for fear of creating the provocative image of an occupation force.

Americans are required to carry weapons at all times -- even in the mess -- and wear flak vests and helmets. "The only time we're allowed not to wear them is when we're in the shower," Sergeant Hunt says.

Much of the Americans' steam is being blown off these days in letters to Stars and Stripes, the unofficial newspaper of the U.S. military, based in Germany. The letters page is traditionally a clearinghouse for soldiers' gripes on all topics, but since the Bosnian deployment started, the paper has been getting three times its usual volume of mail.

Sgt. Mark F. Jenkins, stationed near the airport of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, wrote in, lamenting that he is required to stay on his base at all times, except when riding the shuttle bus to another U.S. base in Zagreb. And when he is on the bus, he wrote, he must wear his helmet -- though civilians sharing the vehicle seem to feel safe in street clothes.

"One can only imagine what the local populace thinks," he complained. "It's all completely unnecessary. The greatest danger in Zagreb is the traffic."

Soldiers based in Tuzla say they feel patronized; it is a common refrain that if they are old enough to take a bullet, then they are old enough to pop a beer at the end of the day.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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