GIs bound for Bosnia ready for warfare

10th Mountain Division can easily switch from peacekeeping to combat

War In Yugoslavia

April 25, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

WATERTOWN, N.Y. -- They're known simply as "the Tenth," and since 1991 they've become the most called-upon Army unit in a generation. They've marched across Iraqi deserts, skirmished with ragtag troops on Somalian streets and stood tall in Haiti.

Now the 10th Mountain Division is preparing for its biggest deployment since it was created to ski and fight in Italy in World War II. Beginning in July, the first wave of 5,600 soldiers will depart from this corner of New York. They'll take with them months of intensive training in urban warfare, Balkan culture and refugee assistance.

Their mission -- as of today -- will be to keep peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But talk of a ground war in Kosovo grows daily. With it grows the thought: Maybe I will be in war.

For soldiers like platoon Sgt. Darren Sonnier, the challenge is to stay focused on the peacekeeping mission, but to be prepared for war. "I pray that there's no conflict," he said. "But if there's going to be a fight, being a professional soldier, I pray I'm in that fight."

The mood, in short, is anticipation. The world is watching Bosnia and Yugoslavia. In a few months, the soldiers of the Tenth will be in the spotlight, either as peacekeepers or warriors.

That anticipation could be felt all over Fort Drum on Friday. In the chilly air at 7 a.m., the woods were alive with soldiers jogging with 80-pound packs, firing their M-16s and rolling down hills.

In the gymnasium at noon, a biannual brigade boxing tournament -- called a "smoker" -- became a raucous outlet for soldiers emotions and voices.

"I want to see some blood," one soldier yelled. And when he got his wish -- a boxer's nose, bloodied by his opponent -- thousands of men in camouflage fatigues roared approval.

Deployment to Kosovo would be the "big game," said Col. Mike Barbero, commander of the 2nd Brigade. He said soldiers ask him daily: "Sir, do you think we're going to Kosovo?"

To prepare for that possibility, soldiers are role-playing some of the situations they might find there. Platoons have been attacked by angry mobs. In anticipation of human shield tactics allegedly used by the Yugoslav military, they've shot at targets surrounded by "civilians."

"Frankly, we took part of Fort Drum and turned it into Bosnia," said Brig. Gen. Gary D. Speer, assistant division commander for operations.

Serbian mentality studied

Some of the exercises are mundane. They're learning how to drive their wide Humvees over narrow mountainous roads. But much of the training has entailed psychological efforts to get inside the head of the Serbian soldier.

That has required lengthy seminars on the complex, centuries-old tapestry of religion and culture behind the Balkan conflict. A 10-book reading list has been distributed, and some platoon sergeants have assigned book reports.

Next month, the Tenth will go to Fort Polk, La., for combat certification training. Beginning in July, Air Force squadrons will transport the Tenth to Bosnia.

"We've prepared for this as if we're going in to keep peace," said Capt. Hugh McLarnon, a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, who served in northern Bosnia in 1995, where he tried to keep Croats and Serbs from shooting each other.

"But the mood can change at any time and our soldiers are prepared for that."

So are the families of the soldiers and the 28,000 residents of nearby Watertown and the "North Country's" business community.

Nearly half of the soldiers at Fort Drum are married. That means a deployment of 5,600 soldiers affects the lives of thousands more left behind.

Mary Corriveau, Watertown's assistant city manager, chairs a Bosnia Deployment Community Task Force that has prepared for the emotional and economic impact of a deployment.

Local businesses are bracing for lost revenues. Schools are requiring teachers to assign students to write letters to soldiers. An "adopt-a-platoon" program will send care packages overseas.

"Everyone's just wrapping their arms around this division," Corriveau said.

Among the tasks: feeding left-behind pets of single soldiers.

Fort Drum is also installing computers at community centers so that spouses and children can e-mail soldiers in Bosnia and even talk to them live through video-teleconferencing equipment.

The prospect of losses

And, though soldiers and their families are reluctant to talk about it, preparations are also being made for lost lives. The community task force has asked Syracuse University, 72 miles to the south, for advice; Syracuse students were killed aboard Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

"It's not something you want to spend time talking about," Corriveau said. "But when you send this many soldiers to the Balkans, just about anything can happen."

Local support is evident in the city. At Longway's Diner on the interstate and at Coach's bar, across from Knowlton paper mill in downtown Watertown, hang flags and banners and posters with the Tenth's powder-keg-shaped shoulder patch, its crossed bayonets forming the X of the Roman numeral 10.

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