The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

A day in the life of Eagle Base, Bosnia: Bosnia facility is home to 1,336 U.S. soldiers

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

The Potomac NewsThis story originally appeared in The Potomac News.

0655 hours
Tuzla, Bosnia

Gospel pop-rock plays from radios from one end of the base to the other.

“You’re listening to the Armed Forces Network Bosnia, in Central Europe.”

The only consistently transmitting signal in this part of Bosnia, AFN dominates the airwaves.

It’s another morning at Task Force Eagle Base in Tuzla, the U.S. Army’s base of operations in Bosnia. A former Yugoslav air force base, Eagle Base shifted to American hands on Dec. 26, 1995, and now serves as home and workplace for 1,336 soldiers.

0710 hours
Pausing to double-check that their weapons are empty, soldiers point their M-16s into the dirt-filled barrel outside the door, pull the trigger, and then enter the dining facility.

The temperature outside hovers around 40 degrees.

On the far side of the building, counter space is shared by several franchise restaurants: Anthony’s Pizza, Robin Hood Sandwich Shoppe and Baskin Robbins Ice Cream.

At this hour, the main dining room is about two-thirds full. The soldiers, gesturing with breakfast rolls or plastic spoons, are, in military parlance, “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

0725 hours
Unit commanders and staff officers troop into the “White House,” the headquarters of the Second Dagger Brigade, First Infantry Division. This early in the morning, they aren’t yet mud-encrusted enough to need the three long-handled brushes chained to the three shallow wells of the boot washes.

The officers’ destination is a large white tent behind the White House. Known as “Battlestar,” it’s a canvas conference room where twice-daily battle update briefings, or BUBs, are held.

There, the detail-oriented Maj. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, commander of the American forces in Bosnia, holds court, checking the progress of units throughout his command.

0802 hours
Across the base, an old warehouse has been converted into the Eagle Base gym. As Guns N Roses blares from two man-sized speakers, a handful of men and women stretch out for an early morning run around the base.

On their only day off for the week, they have gotten up bright and early for a 3.2-mile run with the Eagle Base Running Club.

“It was established as a New Year’s way to get people to recommit and refocus on personal fitness,” says Staff Sgt. Greg Binford, dressed in a red T-shirt and blue sweatpants. “Give them something to do on Sundays that’s just a little bit different.”

Sunday is typically a light work day. Roughly one-seventh of the soldiers have the day off, and others are allowed the chance to go to religious services and take things a bit easier.

“For those who feel extremely frisky first thing in the morning, there’s a core group that runs a 10K. They get here at 7:30, run the course, meet back with us and run again. My boss, Maj. Dupont, is one of them,” Binford said.

Ten runners line up outside the gym, jogging slowly toward the Post Exchange, ready for the run to the East Gate and back.

“We all ready?” Binford jogs in place. “We set?”

And off they go.

1000 hours
Air Force chaplain Capt. Pat Fletcher walks across the small room to the sound of a choir singing to organ music and turns off the boom box.

A congregation of 32 soldiers and three civilians sits in the folding chairs for the Catholic Mass. “Blessed are the Peacemakers, (Matthew 5:9)” reads the sign behind Fletcher’s head.

Fletcher asks the soldiers attending their first and last Masses to stand up and introduce themselves. With troops constantly rotating in and out of the country, this is a necessary, and important, ritual.

“Welcome and goodbye.” Fletcher is soft-spoken and smiling. “Can we have a round of applause for our first and last-timers?”

He sits at an electronic keyboard.

“Now, if I’m the organist, guess who’s the choir?” He looks up from the keyboard, still smiling. “That’s right: ‘We are, Father!’ Number 55 in the processional.”

As the congregation stands and sings “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” Fletcher walks up and down the aisle, shaking holy water on the congregation from a plastic flask.

1023 hours
Outside Tent City 2, where roughly half the enlisted personnel on base are billeted, a pair of civilian buses sit idling, ready for the 10-hour trip to Taszar, Hungary, where the troops rotating out of Bosnia will process their paperwork before going home.

Eager soldiers stow their rucksacks in the baggage compartment under the bus and climb aboard.

One soldier, trying to balance carry-on luggage, a helmet and Kevlar vest, eyes his M-60 machine gun at his feet. Another soldier squats down and scoops it up.

“Thanks, Sarge,” the first soldier says as he climbs on the bus.

“Yep.” Sarge follows.

Nearby, two white buses sit empty, ready to take soldiers to Budapest on leave, their drivers standing smoking near the open doors.

1104 hours
Things have begun to slow down inside the circus-sized white tent that houses the Task Force Eagle Base mail center.

The center, which receives and processes all the military mail for U.S. forces in Bosnia, receives 6,000 to 8,000 pieces of mail daily. Thirty soldiers, working three shifts, sort the mail, which is delivered to three other bases — McGovern, Dobol and Guardian — by the Brown and Root civilian contractors, who are not bound by the military’s “four-vehicle minimum” convoy rules.

Rap music blasts from a distant boom box as Sgt. Les Fultz, of the 30th Postal Company based in Wurzburg, Germany, slings packages aboard a conveyor belt.

The work is hardly new to him. In Cincinnati, the Army Reservist is a 23-year U.S. Postal Service veteran.

“It’s a very worthwhile operation we’re doing here,” he explains during a break. “You’re talking about having a direct effect on soldier morale.” He pauses to catch his breath. “It’s important.”

1120 hours
Near the East Gate, soldiers inspect a line of Humvees, trunks and hoods open.

The soldiers are the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry, newly arrived from Vilseck, Germany. Later today they’ll be shipping out to Colt Base.

Rubbing their red eyes — the soldiers are still numb from the 10-hour bus ride from Taszar, Hungary — they crawl in and out of the Humvees, closely examining the vehicles they’ll soon trust their lives to. Other members of their unit stand nearby, going through checklists on clipboards, item-by-item.

1135 hours
Stafford County native Cpl. James Snyder, his red hair bare, opens up one of the plywood-and-fencing pens.

“We have bomb dogs and narcotic dogs. This is my dog here,” he says as Ricky, a frisky black-haired Dutch shepherd, one of the drug-sniffing dogs of the MP’s K-9 patrol, zips out. “Everybody gets a dog. Sit!”

The dog sits momentarily, then seeing his master relaxed, hops up and puts his paws on Snyder’s shoulders. Snyder grins and rubs the back of Ricky’s neck.

Snyder joined the Army 2 1/2 years ago, following in the footsteps of his father, a retired Fairfax County sheriff’s deputy.

“Kill two birds with one stone: Get a police job and serve my country,” Snyder says as he lowers Ricky’s paws to the floor and rubs the dog’s head. “My dad was in Vietnam and so was my uncle. I think everyone should serve two years out of high school.”

Snyder has been in Bosnia for three weeks and will remain there until September.

“The living conditions are better than I expected, but the kids are worse than I expected,” the father of two young boys says. “The littlest things make them happy: a wave or a piece of candy.”

He looks pained.

“My boys have everything they ever could wish for, and that’s what makes it hard for me.”

1230 hours
Back outside the gym, a group of soldiers in athletic wear stands in a circle around 1st Sgt. Todd Holiday. Exercise time is the only occasion U.S. soldiers in Bosnia are allowed to be out of uniform.

“Don’t touch the rim and go back in,” Holiday says, looking around him. “Backboard? It goes out.”

Everyone nods and steps to the sidelines. Six people take off their sweatshirts and sweatpants, stripping down to shorts and T-shirts in the cool air. They are the first participants in the day’s three-on-three basketball tournament. The temperature still hasn’t gotten above the high 40s.

Spc. Will Gibbs receives the first pass, streaks past Capt. Frank Earnest, and slam-dunks the ball.

“Damn!” yells a bystander, his foot on a basketball.

The rest of the game is similarly one-sided.

Inside the gym, about 18 soldiers stare intently at cards spread on the tables before them, the sounds of clanging weights echoes all around them. They’re playing the fantasy strategy card game Magic: The Gathering.

Both tournaments are sponsored by Morale, Welfare and Recreation, the Department of Defense’s civilian morale officers.

Glen McMurtry, rotated in from Mannheim, Germany, looks up from the basketball tournament chart he’s working on and stares at the Magic players.

“It keeps the morale up a little bit. ’cause there’s nothing to do” on Eagle Base. “I don’t know how much we help. At least we keep a few people happy,” McMurtry says.

1315 hours
The dining facility is full, but the soldiers are more subdued than the breakfast crowd. Soldiers eat burritos, cheeseburgers and strawberry shortcake.

1510 hours
Over at the Acute Care Clinic, Pfc. Chris Payne has just gotten dressed. He worked a 12-hour night shift last night, and the Rappahannock County native is still a little sleepy.

In Virginia he worked both as a volunteer and professional paramedic and here he is practicing emergency medicine.

“I was looking for adventure, the Army said they could keep my skills up, so I said ‘why not,'” he said.

He’s currently halfway through a six-year enlistment. The Army has kept its end of the bargain, training him in advanced cardiac life support, qualifying him to use the defibrillator paddles, and his education is still continuing.

Of course, not all his work is television-style glamor.

“Last night was pretty quiet. We had some abdominal pains, but it was pretty quiet,” he says. Just in case, the medics sleep in tents next to their offices.

“A few weeks ago, we had a mass food poisoning from the chow hall,” Payne says. “It was the macaroni and cheese. We had like 50 cases in like three or four hours.”

His family is very close and he calls home once a week.

“I have a worrisome grandmother,” he says. “She wants to know that they’re feeding us well.”

Naturally, he never told her about the macaroni and cheese.

1545 hours
Following a half-hour break after lunch cleanup, preparations for dinner began at 1400 hours. A Bosnian fry cook grills onions and green peppers for tonight’s dinner.

The dining facility prepares 2,000 meals a day, with a staff of four NCOs, 10 Brown and Root employees and 73 Bosnian nationals, who do everything from cleaning the floors to cooking the meals.

“Food service has come a long way,” says Sgt. Abelardo “T. J.” Tijerina, who oversees the dining facility operation. “Now we get our rations through distributors that, say, Denny’s gets their food from.”

The food at the dining hall is surprisingly good and private contractor Brown and Root is working hard to keep the contract it received in February. Previously, the dining hall had a 10-day dinner menu cycle, with leftovers for lunch. Now it has a 21-day dinner menu cycle, including such dishes as stuffed pork chops, shrimp curry and Cantonese spareribs.

1817 hours
Back at Battlestar, the evening battle update briefing is well under way.

Three rows of unit commanders, nestled behind their laptop computers, pass a microphone from seat-to-seat, answering Meigs’ questions. Field units chime in via conference call, and the Battlestar staff displays pertinent information on large video monitors.

“The Hodge flight,” Meigs says. “How does the Hodge flight look?”

A unit commander places the microphone close to his mouth.

“Uh, it doesn’t look good.”

“Yeah.” Meigs pauses. “What do we tell the Infantry? They don’t teach you this stuff in school.” The collected commanders laugh. Meigs is known for his low-key reprimands and dry humor.

1829 hours
The line is out the door at the dining facility: It’s fajita night.

But the tortillas never arrived, so the grilled meat and vegetables are served on plates.

Dinner time is prime time at the dining facility: Nearly everyone is in from the field or off work for the day. About 200 people are eating at any one time and about 50 more are in line.

The diners include about two dozen foreign troops tonight. Troops from Russia, Turkey, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, the United Kingdom and Italy come through Eagle Base on occasion, and a single Canadian is stationed full-time at Eagle Base.

2007 hours
An advertising banner — “A true connection: AT&T AAFES” — hangs on the side of the tent in Tent City 1. Outside, enlisted soldiers wander back and forth in workout (“physical training”) clothes or in their bathrobes, getting in a shower before bedtime.

Inside the tent is the Eagle Base phone bank, where soldiers can use AT&T phone cards to call back home to the States. They mutter quietly into their phones, their conversations inaudible, except for one soldier, who speaks in loud Italian.

As they finish their calls, they put the phones down and exit quietly, heads down, boots heavy on the plywood floor. But they’re soon replaced by other soldiers, punching in their calling card numbers.

2307 hours
The base is quiet now, the soldiers bedded down for the night as a light drizzle falls on their green tents.

Here and there, a few signs of life of remain. The base taxi (a small maroon Peugeot van) drives down the newly muddy road. The last Bosnians working the dinner shift leave the dining facility, although a skeleton crew will remain to serve light snacks to soldiers working the night shift. A pair of MPs test fire their empty weapons into a dirt-filled barrel outside the door and go in.

The only sound is the whirring of the generators powering the halogen security lights that bathe the perimeter.

Another day at Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia, has ended.

Beau goes to war

Tuesday, March 25, 1997, 0:00
Section: Bosnia,Journalism

Chris and myself in Camp Bedrock

Potomac News photographer Chris Moorhead and I spent over a week in Bosnia-Herzegovina in March 1997, covering the day-to-day life of Virginia soldiers serving as part of SFOR (“Stabilization Force.” And don’t ask me why the military isn’t using real acronyms any more).

We went as part of the U.S. Army’s “regional media visits” programs, flying for free from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Ramstein, Germany and from there to Tuzla, where the American forces are based. The program was free, as the Army basically requests the use of six seats on one of the regular U.S. Air Force flights across the Atlantic and from Germany to Bosnia.

Chris had heard a rumor that a similar program had been run during Desert Shield, and a year after I first contacted Major Stanley Heath at the Pentagon – the delay was due to fretting by my management – we flew into Bosnia. Once there, Chris’ biggest contribution – well, besides the photo stuff – was pointing out “hey, look: Blackhawks!” whenever a helicopter flew over. Oh, and also recognizing a UN International Police Task Force member as a cop who’d once pulled him over in Virginia. A good story, gotten by serendipity.

Working long days – 12 hours was typical, although we worked longer – we interviewed soldiers and Bosnians, getting a glimpse at what war has done to this country.

“War torn” is one of those terms people like to throw around willy-nilly. Bosnia today is worse off than Cairo, Egypt, where I lived for 15 months. But Cairo has worked to reach its current stage of Third World squalor (“Third World” is another term used inappropriately. People compare DC to the Third World, although as bad as it is, it’s far better than genuine Third World conditions). The former Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was once the vacation paradise of the East Bloc. It’s as though the people of Switzerland – the country really is that beautiful, with similar culture and style – decided to tear apart Paradise.

Interviewing in Camp DobolMany of the soldiers we interviewed said they’d opposed the Bosnian mission before being shipped there, but all but one said they thought we should stay longer, if only for the kids. The country has been ravaged, and the plight of the children hurts the soldiers most of all. Even the poorest Army Reservist knows his kids will have a better lives than the children who waved to us as we drove by in Army Humvees (which are really uncomfortable, by the way).

When we pull out in a year or two (we will be staying longer than summer 1998, of course), everyone, Bosnians and NATO troops, expects the fighting to begin again.

Everyone is exhausted by the carnage, but no one believes the other sides will keep the peace. The border areas we visited were quite scary, with a near-clash between Serbian police and Muslim villagers occurring before us.

While it was frankly exhilarating to ride a C-130 into Bosnia or to drink Serbian beer in the town of Zvornik, it was hard to forget how dangerous everything really was, or to ignore the horror around us. Soccer fields looked like prairie dog fields from all the land mines (there’s one land mine for every two people), nine year old children’s graves were desecrated by opposing ethnic groups, an elderly couple the warring sides were consciously avoiding killing had to hide in their pig sty for several weeks as their entire yard and home were filled with shells and sweet kids still can vividly remember seeing the enemy (formerly their neighbors) sweep into their homes, killing their brothers and fathers.

There are no easy answers there, but giving the Bosnians a chance to get on their feet, and to realize that peace is worth the effort, is critical. That’s not me talking: That’s the soldiers of Eagle Base, Tuzla and all the other camps around Bosnia.

A sampling of my Bosnian stories from the Potomac News:


Copyright © Beau Yarbrough, all rights reserved
Veritas odit moras.