IN BOSNIA WITH THE 1ST SQUADRON, 4TH CAVALRY
Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief
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CROSS THE ZOS past "Checkpoint Charlie" is Serbian territory. Within sight of Memici is her sister village, Mahala, on the Serb side. Many Muslims in Memici and Kalesija were ethnically cleansed from Mahala. Under the terms of the Dayton Agreement, they are technically supposed to be allowed to return to their homes but local Serbs and the authorities make this difficult with police checkpoints and hooliganism. The situation is aggravated by a substantial number of Serbs who have come to the area from Sarajevo and suffered a similar fate when the Sarajevo suburbs were handed over to government control. Emotions surrounding the return to former homes run high for both parties.
The front gate guard tower at the "Dawg Pound," better known as Camp Alicia, home of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry.
HAD MY FIRST ENOUNTER with the "One Quarter Cav," as they call themselves, while on the way back from the killing fields around Srebrenica.
Team Berserkistan was almost across the Zone of Separation, west of Zvornik, when we were pulled up at a Bosnian Serb police checkpoint just inside their territory. Checkpoints are for the most part not allowed and this one was being evicted by American troops.
A Bradley Fighting Vehicle and a group of armored Hummvees were on scene to provide persuasion, but the Serbs, exhibiting more brawn than brains, continued to stop traffic even while they were being told to pack off. I snapped a couple of frames through the windscreen and a policeman told us that photographs were forbidden before waving us through. Not one to miss such an opportunity, I ducked in behind the first .50 Calibre-equipped Hummer and got out to investigate.
For the fourth time in three days, Lt. Colonel Tony Harriman, from Petersburg, VA, had been diverted from his troop leading duties to evict this particularly stubborn group of Serbs. He was not in a good mood. "Move your checkpoint, you are in violation." He repeated over and over.
The Serbs continued to argue, cooking up some cock and bull story about conducting foot patrols, but he wasn't buying it. A CBS crew was on hand and now a photographer had turned up so the Serbs were beginning to see the better side of politics and valor and the event was breaking up.
That's when I met 1st Squadron's operations officer, Major Bryan Roberts of Hampton, VA. He gave us a quick rundown of the last few days activity along the road, Serbs set up checkpoint, the Cavalry throws them out. "They're still playing their little game." He related.
"We watch them stop cars and turn them back from our OP's(observation posts) and then they deny it when we come down here." We both agreed that it was all pretty ridiculous and he invited us to visit his unit any time we wished. Being a Cavalry brat from way back, granddad in C Troop of the 12th and dad at Fort Riley in'39, I readily accepted.
HEN I FINALLY MADE IT BACK we were welcomed warmly and billeted in the "Hotel Transient," a desert tent that doubled as the post barber shop during the day. After my first taste of turkey and gravy with mashed potatoes in months at the first rate mess hall, Major Roberts arranged for us to go on a patrol the next day and gave us a quick run down of recent events.
"The Serbs are still playing the checkpoint game and we keep evicting them," he told us, "They've been kind of a thorn in our side but we're keeping an eye on them. We also got called in to help out with the refugee incident a while back, but our other missions are going well.
We've been doing weapons site verification, mine clearing escorts, and patrolling the ZOS. We've had pretty good cooperation from both sides, but we stay on our toes." After putting us on to A Troop to coordinate the next day's patrol, and making us feel at home, the Major left Team Berserkistan to settle into our new home and wander around to get the feel of the place.
The camp, known officially as "Alicia," but nicknamed "The Dawg Pound" is located east of Tuzla, about ten kilometers from the Bosnian town of Kalesija and right next door to the former front line village of Memici. The area was hotly contested during the last four years.
Driving through Kalesija you can see plenty of shelling damage and the village of Memici was almost leveled. The area has recently reverted to Bosnian Government control, the front line being pushed back and out of Memici, and people have begun to return to their homes and rebuild. The area has however, remained tense.
One recent incident involving a large group of refugees and a mob of local Serbs and police earned the nickname "Braveheart" from the 1/4 Cavalry troopers who were called in to try to keep the situation from getting any worse than it already was. "We saw a bunch of young Serbs go into the police station and come out again armed with ax handles and the like," related one trooper who was present, "They rushed at each other just like in the movie. I saw one old man, I mean like this guy must have been fifty-something, and he was kicking everybody's ass with an ax handle! I mean he went through five or six people before we could break it up, unbelievable." Sporadic incidents have continued in the area ever since.
The area is also crawling with mines. Front lines shifted back and forth and fields of anti-personnel mines are abundant. Captain Wayne Skill of Salem, Oregon heads up A Company, 40th Engineer Battalion. Attached to 1/4 Cavalry as their engineer support. His job is to coordinate, oversee, and monitor mine clearing in the area by the respective sides.
He estimates the number of mines in the squadron's area of responsibility in the thousands. "I don't know if they'll ever get this place totally cleared." He said, "We're still finding stuff in Germany from WW2 and this place is just as bad. We're getting really good cooperation from both sides though. In just this general area we've cleared quite a few." The danger is still significant though, minefield markers are a common sight, and the troops play it safe when in doubt.
ORE MUNDANE TASKS for the troopers include pulling maintenance on their vehicles, and pulling guard duty. They maintain a high state of readiness and always keep their eyes peeled for any danger that might come their way, but the only real problem has been a rash of locals trying to appropriate perimeter trip flares.
The camp's reaction force is constantly being rousted out of their quarters to check up on trip flares going off outside their wire. "We caught an old man out front of the main gate the other day with some of our trip flares," one fellow in the guard tower told us, "We saw him kind of eyeing our wire so we called him over. He had two of them in a bag on his bike.
God knows what they want 'em for, but we always have a couple go off at night, either from dogs or the LNs (the local nationals)." The biggest problem for troops however is boredom. Long hours on checkpoints or in camp have got the troops calling themselves "Prisoners for Peace". Aside from patrolling, training classes, or being sent to break up disturbances, troops are confined to their camp or OPs (Observation Posts). The post itself has good quarters and recreation facilities but combat troops, especially Cavalry Troopers trained and conditioned for maneuver, really feel the hours drag by.
"I came down here expecting to get into it and kick somebody's ass," one twelve year veteran remarked, "but there's nothing happening. If we're not going to get into it, get me outa' here." His view was shared by many and has been compounded by the general belief that when they leave the war will start right back up again, as has been repeatedly voiced to IFOR soldiers by locals.
The things they have seen in Bosnia, however, dull their cynicism somewhat. Sgt. Wilfredo "Cosmo" Cosme, an animated fellow from Puerto Rico, and SSgt. Richard Johnson of New Orleans, related an incident that was particularly moving for the men of A Troop.
"When we came into Olovo we were the first Americans in. They had been surrounded on three sides and I've never seen a place so blown to hell. The Serbs on the hill had been shelling them with artillery for four years and the place was a wreck. We were always patrolling and maneuvering down there so we got to see a lot of the people."
"One thing I will never forget was one day we were moving through town and this little girl maybe eight years old was out there with her family." SSgt. Johnson continued, "They were all dressed up in their Sunday clothes and she was holding up a sign with a big heart on it with IFOR in big letters across it. It was really moving. We said to ourselves, 'That's why we're here,' and we always try to remember that."
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