The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

Soldiers unprepared for Bosnia’s devastation, suffering

Wednesday, March 26, 1997, 0:00
Section: Bosnia,Journalism

The Potomac NewsThis story originally appeared in The Potomac News.

No one believes soldiers can be totally prepared for every situation they will encounter in a war zone, but the U.S. Army has tried to cover all its bases.

Before being deployed to Bosnia, American soldiers go through simulations of life in Bosnia, receive detailed instruction on what to expect and receive a sheaf of books and pamphlets containing additional information.

One of the pamphlets, “A Soldier’s Guide: Bosnia-Herzegovina,” includes such information as the size and population of Bosnia (it’s slightly larger than Tennessee, with a slightly smaller population than the state of Georgia), a brief history of the conflict, information on the different military and political factions, useful phrases (“Oruzje dolje!” means “Put your weapon down!”) and even hints on meeting the media (“There is nothing wrong with saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I can’t tell you.’ However, never lie to a reporter.”).

But all the preparation in the world can’t prepare a soldier for the emotional reality of war.

“I expected to see a war-torn country,” Lt. John Grantz of Fredericksburg said. “But for a young guy who came from a middle-income American family, it’s hard to believe it until you see it.”

“The training was pretty realistic,” said Lt. Timothy Mangum, a former Woodbridge High School student, “But I still can’t believe how these houses and lives have been turned upside down by this war.”

What shocks many of the soldiers is how beautiful the country — the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics — clearly once was.

“If you look out here, it looks like a hillside in Italy,” said Maj. Ed Burley of Kingstown, near Fort Belvoir. “The problem is, it looks like a hillside in Italy in 1945.”

Soldiers who have been in Bosnia less than six months are seeing the damage after the Bosnians have had more than a year to rebuild.

“When you look at the situation, what would it be like if we weren’t here, what would it be like?” said 1st Sgt. Edward Gaines of Aldie in Loudoun County. “Total chaos, total devastation.”

Nearly every soldier interviewed mentioned those hardest hit by the war: the children of Bosnia.

“Every time we go out, the little kids wave at the convoy,” said Cpl. Keith Wiedeman of Centreville. “And that reminds me of why we’re here: We’re here for the kids so then they can grow up safely.”

“You meet little kids or teens talking about going to college in Belgrade,” Grantz said. “It’s nice to think that the reason they’re not dead in a ditch somewhere is because we’re here. I wouldn’t mind if we stayed here for a while.”

Although the American soldiers have never been purposely attacked by any factions, they are still in danger. Soldiers are told “if you didn’t drop it, you don’t pick it up” and to never step off the road for fear of mines. UNICEF estimates 1.8 million landmines have been planted in Bosnia.

Despite that, the troops are relaxed, if alert.

“I don’t think it’s any more dangerous than D.C., personally,” said Lt. Col. Mike Webb of Lake Ridge, a career military officer.

“It’s a different kind of danger,” Burley said. “D.C. is a random sort of danger.” Bosnia’s violence, he said, is more “systematic.”

Despite the grim nature of their mission, many of the soldiers are excited to be in Bosnia and by the work before them.

“The mission is a lot better than I thought it would be to tell the truth,” Sgt. Mark Gonzales of Manassas said. “I wasn’t aware of the good work the soldiers are doing here.”

“It’s kind of nice — to be honest with you — to come from being in D.C. a year and be wearing this uniform,” Webb said of his camouflage fatigues. “Soon enough, I’ll be back … driving the Beltway.” He laughed.

Bosnia’s future is less bright. Most people in Bosnia believe fighting will begin again, soon after the U.S. troops pull out in 1998. The question is how long the fighting will last next time.

“Our job is to make the peace, to go out and convince them the benefits [of peace] far outweigh the violence,” Burley said. “And you have some very angry people and it’s hard for them to forget.”

He has seen hopeful signs in the trucks that roll past his base camp, trading Serbian gravel for Muslim-Croat coal.

“That’s a first sign that maybe it’s possible for the whole country to heal,” he said.

For Gonzales, the promise of peace is symbolized by the mosques being rebuilt, day-by-day.

“When you meet the people here and see how they’re pushing forward despite how they’ve gone through so much, it’s very uplifting,” he said.

But the Bosnians still have a long way to go before their lives can approach what Americans would recognize as normal.

“A lot of people say we should just take care of ourselves, but there’s a lot of people here who need our help,” Grantz said. “Our tax dollars are going to a good cause and I wish everybody could come and see it. And I’m a cynical guy.”

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