PETROVAC, Macedonia -- Staff Sgt. Chris Stone's voice was so flat, so unemotional, that when he radioed for help Wednesday, his superior officer, Sgt. 1st Class Jim LaShelle, didn't think he was serious and began to cut him off.
"Grid 675 -- " Stone said, before LaShelle broke in on the radio line to make sure Stone wasn't kidding.
But that was only half of a six-digit number needed to locate Stone and two other soldiers whose Humvee had been surrounded by Serbs. When Stone repeated that they were taking direct fire, LaShelle knew it was true and bolted up straight.
"Plow through 'em!" LaShelle yelled. "Plow through 'em!"
The radio suddenly went dead, and most of Stone's comrades in the 1st Squadron of the 4th U.S. Cavalry assumed that Stone, Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez and Spec. Steven M. Gonzales were dead, too.
Eighteen hours later, pictures of the soldiers, bruised and sullen, turned up on Serbian television. While there has been debate about their status, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared yesterday that they qualify as POWs under the Geneva Convention and asked Belgrade for unsupervised visits with the soldiers.
At the squadron's home base here, soldiers insisted yesterday that their comrades were too experienced and knew the frontier too well to have strayed inadvertently into enemy territory. They said they believe the three were victims of edgy Serbian forces and an unmarked, disputed border.
The soldiers of the 4th U.S. Cavalry pride themselves on being flexible and adaptable. They are the successors of the cavalry that scouted the American frontier and that was depicted riding to the rescue in Saturday matinees of yesteryear.
Since 1993, they were part of a United Nations mission that kept watch along Macedonia's border with Yugoslavia. But that mission ended abruptly in February after a Security Council internal dispute.
Scouting the border
Before the 4th Cavalry could be sent back to Germany, the situation in Kosovo deteriorated sharply. The soldiers found themselves scouting the border to protect 11,000 NATO troops in Macedonia. They peeled off their blue U.N. patches and berets, and changed the paint on their armored vehicles from U.N. white to standard Army green.
But the border is unmarked, and there has been a long-running dispute between Yugoslavia and Macedonia about its exact location. Suspecting that the reported U.S. reluctance to commit ground troops in Kosovo was a ruse, Yugoslav forces moved closer to the border. The captured soldiers' comrades are convinced that the Yugoslavs crossed the border to surround and snatch them.
Lt. Col. James Shufelt, their commanding officer, said the captured soldiers had been part of a patrol that included three Humvees. As a standard precaution, border scouts establish what they call a "rally point," to which they race if there is a hint of danger.
On the day of their capture, the soldiers had briefly split off from the two other Humvees to familiarize themselves with an isolated rally point chosen to skirt the increasingly hostile local villages.
Ramirez, 24, was driving. Stone, known as a meticulous student of reconnaissance, sat next to Ramirez, using a hand-held global positioning system that allowed him to determine that they were about three miles from the border. Gonzales, 21, manned a .50-caliber Browning machine gun mounted on top of the Humvee.
Shufelt and other officers said they believe the three soldiers drove into either an ambush or a Serbian unit that had set up a border patrol of its own.
On Thursday, a local postman, Slave Markovic, showed a reporter the unmarked dirt road he and other ethnic Serbs say the U.S. soldiers were driving on when they were captured. Macedonian TV quoted residents of the Yugoslav village of Slavuevac as saying the Americans had driven about a mile into Serbian territory before they were captured. Markovic, 36, who said he had heard but had not seen the shooting, added that he is convinced the Americans unwittingly crossed the border.
Asked if the soldiers could have inadvertently crossed into enemy territory, Shufelt, their commander, said, "Is it possible? Yes. Is it probable? No."
Stone is praised by fellow soldiers for being calm under pressure. It was that coolness that momentarily fooled LaShelle when the distress call came in.
"Sergeant Stone's voice didn't seem right," LaShelle said, so he asked if Stone was joking around.
"Blue Four, this is Blue Five," Stone said. "We're in contact. We're taking direct fire."
About a mile away, LaShelle grabbed his radio, admonishing Stone, saying, "You better not be [kidding] me."
"We're not," Stone replied. "We're taking direct fire. We're trapped. They're all around us. We can't get out."
Immediately afterward, one of the nearby scouts set out on foot to look for his comrades. It was an extremely dangerous operation, snaking and sneaking through the farmland and rolling hills, armed only with an M-16 rifle.
A Blackhawk helicopter lifted off to help search, but the Humvee had disappeared without a trace, presumably driven across enemy lines by Yugoslav forces or sympathizers.
French, British and Italian pilots looked for the missing men. After a futile all-night operation, the search ended when Brig. Gen. John Craddock called Shufelt in the field and said, "They've just been shown on CNN."
Pub Date: 4/04/99