In Bosnia mission, U.S. soldiers are prisoners of peace Army finds morale wanes after six months

March 30, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KAPOSVAR, Hungary -- In a major psychological study of the effect on soldiers of the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, the U.S. Army is finding that the combat readiness, morale and effectiveness of the troops appear to plummet after six months of duty.

The study, which is being conducted at the U.S. staging base here and is to be published in an American medical journal in the fall, has serious implications for future peacekeeping operations.

Although officers have already noted a deterioration of combat skills in Bosnia, the study is the first to define systematically the extent of the problem caused by prolonged deployment there.

The results are worrying officers, who say that peacekeeping is not the primary function of the military. Building an army into a police force, they say, is not the same as building an army that can fight a war.

Caught between roles, the Army is struggling to determine how to do the job demanded of it in places such as Bosnia, while maintaining the increasingly sophisticated skills and motivation needed for modern warfare.

"From a psychological point of view," said Dr. Roger G. Gano, "we are seeing, after the six-month period, a deterioration in the self-reported mental condition in our screening."

Gano, chief of the department of psychiatry at the 67th Combat Support Hospital, which is carrying out the study, said data were still coming in. Army units now serve in Bosnia for six months, half the length of the standard tour when the deployment began in late 1995.

Gone are the days when troops slept in the backs of their vehicles, waded ankle-deep in mud and shaved their heads because there wasn't enough water for washing.

Now soldiers have heated housing, hot showers, American fast-food outlets, fitness centers and base commissaries that sell televisions and videocassette recorders.

Trouble adapting

Although the Army has created small miracles, even setting up video-conference calls for families, it is having a hard time adapting to its role as a police force.

The 8,500 soldiers in Bosnia, part of the 31,000-person multinational force, live bottled up on the bases when not on heavily protected patrols. Many, even those who are highly trained or in special units, fill their days with menial tasks: stacking sandbags, doing guard duty, carrying out patrols or manning checkpoints.

The tedium, along with the severe restrictions, is stifling, especially to combat troops. And with two soldiers having committed suicide and one having died in a land-mine explosion, troops have more to fear statistically from themselves than from the former combatants in the Bosnian war.

Cpl. Zechariah E. Gransbury, 23, of Orlando, Fla., is a military police officer who spent eight months in Bosnia. Nursing a beer in a huge tent here at the staging base, he sat with several friends who all said they had plans to leave the Army. He and his friends said the Army had pushed them too far.

"It kept getting worse and worse," he said. "The repetition, the same thing day in and day out, wore us down. Morale in my battalion, in the end, was terrible.

"Most soldiers didn't do the jobs they were trained to do. No one was motivated. People started slacking off; they didn't pay attention to details. Everyone looked for the easy way out.

"I think a lot of us also concluded that we were not making any real change in Bosnia, that we were not creating peace."

No clear enemy

Soldiering has often been about long periods of boredom and brief moments of terror. But peacekeeping also puts psychological strains on the soldier. There is no clear enemy; the mission is hard to define; there is no conflict looming to motivate troops through periods of routine and drill.

"In the [Persian] Gulf we knew who the enemy was," said Staff Sgt. Andrew Garza, 31, of Brownsville, Texas. "But here we don't. We had incoming Scud missiles in the gulf that kept us in a different state of alert.

"There is a big difference between peacekeeping and war. I enjoyed Desert Storm. It was more exciting. I did what I was trained to do. Here we all wonder if, when we pull out in 1998, the Bosnians won't start fighting again. I don't want to look back 10 years from now and say I wasted my time."

The psychological survey is based on a written questionnaire given to 30,000 departing soldiers. It is partly the result of the Army's belief -- despite reports of soldiers' exposure to toxic chemicals -- that gulf war syndrome stems primarily from untreated psychosomatic problems.

The Army is also taking and storing a blood sample from each departing soldier. The results of the survey will be used not only to help structure deployments in future peacekeeping operations, but also to shed light on any widespread health disorders that might develop later.

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