Guardsmen learning art of keeping the peace

In New Jersey woods, citizen-soldiers train for duty in Bosnia

April 15, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT DIX, N.J. - Come October, those keeping the tenuous peace in Bosnia will include an auto mechanic from Perry Hall, a police officer from Crownsville and a construction manager from Baltimore.

But on this day, the craggy Balkans have been replicated on a wooded stretch of central New Jersey. Bouncing along in their Humvee, the three dodge a "sniper," speed through a checkpoint and inspect a "Serbian" weapons cache.

Mike Mosley, a lanky 31-year-old Army National Guard private and auto mechanic, pokes through the Humvee's turret and fingers his M-249 automatic weapon. He lets loose a stream of tobacco juice into a plastic cup and ponders his six-month duties in Bosnia.

"I've been over there before - it's not as bad as everyone says," offers Mosley, who was on active duty three years ago and helped quell riots south of Sarajevo. "You still have to train for it, though."

This time, Mosley will be with the 29th Infantry Division, the Army Guard unit that will send about 600 troops from Maryland and 1,400 more from Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Guard units from other states and a smaller number of active-duty Army troops will round out the 3,200 U.S. peacekeepers.

The Guard has long been associated more with domestic hurricane relief than with international peacekeeping. But with the active-duty Army shrinking by a third in the decade since the end of the Cold War, the Guard has increasingly assumed roles overseas.

About 80 percent of the troops heading to Bosnia in October will be from the Guard - citizen-soldiers who will put aside jobs and families to become full-time infantrymen. As recently as last year, 80 percent of the U.S. force in Bosnia was active-duty Army.

And beginning this fall, for the first time since the Korean War, a Guard general will command Guard combat units in a foreign operation. That role falls to the 29th's commander, Maj. Gen. H. Steven Blum, a former Green Beret with a bullet-like shaved head and a sandpaper voice who has spent 33 years in uniform.

"It's a historic event," says Blum, 53, a one-time Baltimore schoolteacher who will command not only U.S. troops but also 4,000 foreign soldiers - including Russians, Turks, Latvians and Danes - in northeastern Bosnia. "We think it's a great honor." They will be among the 20,000 NATO-led troops patrolling Bosnia.

Blum has served on overseas training teams and has held stateside commands but has never handled anything as complex and as high-profile as this mission. He, too, is learning how to be a Balkan peacekeeper, reading books and quizzing experts. He knows it is a daunting effort: There are still hard-liners opposed to a multi-ethnic state, and about 1 million refugees within Bosnia must be returned to their homes.

Although the wholesale slaughter that marked the early 1990s has long subsided in Bosnia, some hard-line Bosnian Croat nationalists are thought to be behind a new surge of bloody demonstrations. And the violence farther south, in Kosovo and Macedonia, reflects the volatile and unpredictable nature of the scarred region.

Nearly half the Guard troops in the United States have active-duty experience - many have served in the Balkans - and are trained for combat. Yet Blum notes that those skills must be held in reserve as his troops spend seven months learning to be peacekeepers.

"Combat-arms guys are trained to make quick decisions," the general says. "That will get you into trouble in Bosnia faster than anything else. Success will be about a lieutenant who thought his way out of a confrontation rather than fought his way out of a confrontation."

Some foreign-policy experts have questioned the future of Bosnia and the continued American role, noting that some Bosnian Croat leaders no longer back the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the fighting. There are cities and towns still split along ethnic lines. And the Bush administration is pressing to reduce the number of U.S. peacekeepers, preferring that the Europeans shoulder more of the burden.

But Spc. Shawn Sadowski, a 22-year-old Guardsman from Glen Burnie, a tae kwan do instructor who attends Anne Arundel Community College, has a different view. He served in Bosnia three years ago on active duty.

"Last time, it was pretty routine - no major problems," Sadowski says.

He shrugs. "It's a good cause."

A taste of confrontation

The convoy of six Humvees grinds along the asphalt road. One is driven by Spc. Joe Escobar, a beefy 34-year-old police officer at the U.S. Naval Academy. A bespectacled 1st Lt. John Dement, a 26-year-old construction manager from Baltimore, sits in the passenger seat, studying a map.

Their fellow Army soldiers are peppered throughout the area and lurking in the woods, playing the roles of Bosnian police officers, soldiers or irate residents complaining about trash in the streets.

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