U.S. unit sent to Balkans to keep peace instead has key assignments in war zone

1st Squadron happened to be in Macedonia when attacks on Serbia began

April 11, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Lt. Col. James Shufelt has the Taiwanese to thank for how what was supposed to be a placid backwater mission has been stood on its head. His men came to the Balkans to wear the blue berets of United Nations peacekeepers but instead found themselves on NATO's front line.

For more than five years, U.S. Army battalions have been rotating through here along with units from Scandinavia and Indonesia, watching the border with Serbia, keeping everything quiet.

When Shufelt and the 350 men and women of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, arrived in February, his predecessor told him that duty in Macedonia was like the movie "Groundhog Day": every day, the same thing, over and over, and no way of escaping the routine.

But about the same time, half a world away, Taiwan won diplomatic recognition from the government of Macedonia. Infuriated, the mainland Chinese vetoed the continuing U.N. operation. With that, the 1st Squadron ran out of a mission, except that the crisis in Kosovo came along to change everything.

What had been peacekeeping became what the Army calls "force protection."

The 1st Squadron reports to NATO now, and not the United Nations. It patrols a sector of the border with Serbia to keep an eye on the frontier for the benefit of the 12,000 troops from other NATO countries who have gathered in Macedonia. There is no pretense of impartiality in this role.

"We've had more excitement in 30 days than all the other task forces had in 5 1/2 years," Shufelt said Friday.

`Changes every hour'

In addition to patrols, his men spent the first three weeks of last month preparing the way for the NATO intervention force that was supposed to go into Kosovo with the peace agreement, except that the peace agreement fell apart. Then they were called on to help with the unexpected flood of ethnic Albanian refugees who poured out of Kosovo the past two weeks.

"It changes every day," he said. "It changes every hour."

On March 31, it was three men from this unit who were captured by Serbian forces. Shufelt said he's convinced they were about four miles inside Macedonia when they were taken, and he believes that pro-Serbian villagers in Macedonia might have played a part in their capture.

"When we switched over from the U.N., repainted all our vehicles, you could discern a real change in attitude in some of those villages," he said. "There's a lot of open hostility."

People throw rocks at the patrols, honk their horns, make obscene gestures.

"The capture of those soldiers was an escalation of that. I'm convinced that was what happened," Shufelt said.

As Pfc. Christopher Harrell put it, "From what I'm told, they're nice by day but fighters by night."

Harrell, like all the soldiers here, slung his body armor on before stepping into the well-guarded base compound. Asked whether it wasn't bulky and uncomfortable, he replied, "I'd rather wear it."

Brig. Gen. John Craddock, the designated peacekeeping force commander here -- his staff is here but his peacekeeping force is still in Germany -- said the patrols have continued, now with "up-armored" Humvees. These are Army vehicles with armor, larger-than-normal motors and bulletproof glass.

It was a natural decision, Craddock said, to keep the 1st Squadron here as a NATO unit after the U.N. mandate expired. It was here, for one thing. It took about a month to close down its U.N. duties, repaint all the vehicles, finish the Army paperwork.

So now it's a cavalry unit in borderline-hostile territory with none of the tanks or Bradley Fighting Vehicles it has been trained to use. Those are back in Germany, where the squadron is stationed.

The only reminder that this is the cavalry is a saddle someone set up on a sawhorse by the headquarters front door -- that and the old John Wayne cavalry Stetsons that Shufelt and some of the others keep handy.

In six weeks, they've had a half-dozen missions -- working for the United Nations, preparing for peacekeepers, watching out for war, helping refugees.

"I mean, this is hard," said Craddock. "It's a difficult situation, it's a changing situation, it's complex, it's vague. What's missing is the most important thing for soldiers -- and that's predictability."

One of the biggest surprises was the surge of 350,000 refugees out of Kosovo. The 1st Squadron was too small to help set up a camp, but it donated 35,000 liters of water, six pallets of milk, 400 pounds of rice and 150 pounds of cereal from its rations.

Lt. Col. Tom Schneider said the unit had considered donating the Army's Meals Ready to Eat, but because they are packed with rich food to stoke the energy of soldiers in the field, they were considered unhealthy for the refugees, many of whom had not eaten well or at all in days.

The soldiers are also coordinating with air relief flight crews, Macedonian customs and British troops running a big camp at Brazda to try to ease the passage of supplies.

Maryland memories

Shufelt, a 40-year-old West Point graduate whose father was an artilleryman, lived all over the world growing up, so he's used to change, and he said he's not too bothered by the way his plans here are good for about an hour and a half before they're overtaken by events.

If there was a touchstone in his life, it was his grandparents' house off Harford Road in Parkville. Alonzo Shufelt, who worked for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. for 40 years, lived there until he died in 1994. Adeline Shufelt still lives there.

"Baltimore," he said, as the phone kept ringing and young lieutenants ran in and out with urgent messages, "was the one place you could go back to. It was the one constant thing."

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