IN BOSNIA WITH THE
1ST SQUADRON, 4TH CAVALRY
Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief
CLICK ANY IMAGE BELOW FOR A LARGER PRINT
IEUTENANT DUDLEY CAME OUT OF HIS TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and briefed his troopers. The mission that day was pretty straitforward. We would patrol deep into Serbian-held territory and check up on an armored vehicle at a registered cantonment area to make sure it was where it was supposed to be. We would then go through the village of Sekovici and up into the hills to pay a visit to a local Serbian "Headquarters". Basically, check up on the locals and show the flag. Soon after, we were saddled up and heading east with three Bradleys and a Hummvee full of Air Force FACs (Forward Air Controllers) to call down the wrath of god if that became necessary.
Above: "Misfits" sticker on gunner's helmet. Top photo: SSgt. Richard Johnson.
Vulnerable to ambush in high hills and narrow roads, a M3A2 Bradley navigates a tightly wooded road near Osmasi in Serb held territory.
HEY ARE KNOWN AS 'SCOUTS,' and they are the maneuver elements of a Cavalry Squadron. Traditionally, their job has been to range forward from the main army and gather "Accurate, Timely and Specific" information about the enemy and generally act as the eyes and ears of the army. During the more peaceful periods on the frontier, the Cavalry more often than not traveled around showing the flag and reminding those who would cause trouble that they were the long arm of the law. Today in Bosnia, that has changed a little since the days of the Horse Cavalry -- but the troopers still fit the profile. Team Berserkistan had the privilege of getting to know and patrolling with A Troop of the 1-4 Cav.
Major Bryan Roberts, the S-3, or Operations officer, made the arrangements. "A Troop's going out tomorrow so you can go with them," he told us, a mischievous smile crossing his face, "They're pretty crazy so you'll have a good time." Like his Colonel, the Major is another good 'ole fellow from Virginia, and made all our accommodations and coordination with the unit a breeze.
We coordinated with A troop's OIC (Officer In Charge), Lieutenant Brian Dudley from Richmond, Virginia. He's a tanker by trade, but is pulling Scout duty due to a shortage of officers. A West Point grad, he is quite well suited to do both, and of course, Virginia boys take to Cavalry like ducks to water anyway, in my humble opinion. "We're short of accommodations up at our OP (Observation Point)", they're own little frontier post nicknamed "Alcatraz", in Serb territory, "but meet us here in the morning when we come to pick up chow and then we'll head out."
ARLY THE NEXT DAY, we met at the appointed place and time and were soon on our way in the back of one of their M3A2 Bradleys -- a roaring, smoking, rolling beast of a track with an ill-reputation all it's own. It was another gray, Balkan morning and we sandwiched ourselves in the bowels of the monster with the breakfast and enough TOW missiles and 25mm cannon ammunition to cause quite a row if it came to it, or blow us sky high if we got hit. We crossed the ZOS (Zone of Separation) into Serbian territory and were soon pulling into the barbed wire perimeter of "Alcatraz," a bombed-out three story relic festooned with sandbags and concertina. We off-loaded the chow and sat down to breakfast in their Spartan "living room."
"It's not much but we like it OK," one of the troopers told me as we made small talk over the bacon, eggs and coffee. "It keeps us out of camp and if there's any action to be had, it'll be out here. We've got our own R&R stuff set up and everyone pretty much leaves us alone to do our jobs. We like it like that." They should have called the place Fort Apache.
After breakfast we all sat around chatting while Lieutenant Dudley coordinated with the Squadron the details of that day's patrol. "That's a Tri-Breed." remarked the senior NCO on post, SSgt. Richard Johnson of New Orleans, pointing out one of the post's "co-inhabitant" dogs. "They call 'em that because they "Tried, and failed.", he said laughing. The dog in question had six toes, three testicles and was named Chernobyl, clearly the love child of a Rottweiler and some kind of Basset. That broke the ice and soon we were talking about every subject under the sun.
SSgt. Johnson is a living, breathing portrait of the old-time Cavalry NCO, right out of a Zane Gray novel. He's not a tall man, but definitely not someone to crowd. He's been in the cavalry for twelve years. Later, after we came back from the patrol, he told us how he came to be in the army.
"I was just getting out of high school, was gonna get married and all that, but it fell apart. I was living in a small town, and there wasn't a whole lot of work, so I went and talked to a recruiter. I signed up for a two-year hitch, figured that two wasn't that long, and if I didn't like it I could get out. When it came time to re-up, I called home and talked to my mother and some old friends. Nothing had changed back there and everybody was out of work. They told me there wasn't any point in coming back to that place. That was twelve years ago."
Like untold numbers of his predecessors that left the East for the West a hundred and fifty odd years ago, the story was the same. I guess that's how the best NCOs are made. He leads by example, earns the respect of his men by deed and humor, and runs a tight ship. He is fiercely protective of his young troopers. "I don't like people crowding my men." He stated flatly, "We'll do the job. Just stay out of our way and let us get on with it." He's the type of guy Fredrick Remington used to paint, and loves to tell stories about his 8-year-old son back home in Germany. "He takes after me," he says smiling, "A little hellion, just like his dad."
As we rolled down the wooded roads that wound their way through the hills I couldn't help notice how conspicuous we were in the high-profile Brads. No one I talked to had had much good to say about them. They were too tall, too loud, and belched out big black clouds of diesel exhaust. Long gone are the days of slipping silently over the terrain on Indian Ponies. "Give us ATVs and Hummvees and we could sneak around here with no problem." One trooper told me, "I like the firepower, but when we're on exercise in Germany we can hear and smell 'em coming a mile away. All you do is look for the smoke and wait."
This did not make me feel any better about lumbering around over tight terrain in a country where RPGs are a popular home defense accessory. I double-checked the M203 grenade launcher/rifle stowed in the back and made mental notes regarding how I was going to un-ass the Bradley in the event we got hit. Bradleys are not well known for their armor protection either, just about anything will punch a hole in it. Sitting on boxes and boxes of cannon shells did not help my mood. This was compounded when I started seeing how the local Serbs eyed us as we passed through their villages.
Unlike places like Olovo where the Americans had been seen as saviors, (see: Boots & Saddles I) the male Serbs who glared at us as we passed had nothing but hostility in their eyes. Mind you, we did meet one or two that day who were pleasant, but they were definitely in the minority. All the little children waved and gave us big smiles, but their parents and older brothers shot us looks that would kill.
When we came to our first stop to check up on an a Serb APC we got the evil eye from a group sitting in the square. We dismounted and went to see it, just to make sure it was where it was supposed to be. Sure enough it was. It was an old 1950's BTR-50 command vehicle and by the looks of it was never going to go anywhere again except to the scrap yard.
HE LOCAL CHILDREN FOLLOWED us up and an older lady came by and, with a look of total disgust for the contraption, motioned for us to take the damn thing away. She was obviously a mother and had had enough of this war. The kids giggled and blushed, asking for sweets. SSgt. Johnson and I climbed in to examine it more thoroughly, and to tear out the nifty periscopes for souvenirs. No luck there. The cluster of young men in the square just glared and refused to return our greetings. A short stop at the local market for some gum for the kids and we got the hell out of there. Mission number one complete.
Then we rumbled and roared up through the village of Sekovici. It was the main village on our patrol route and the streets were brimming with people. The weather had turned sunny but the disposition of the town certainly was not. The men who filled the street cafes gave us hard looks and an occasional unfriendly hand gesture, putting down bottles of beer before it was even noon. I hunkered deeper down into the crew compartment. The place was dirty and had a rough-and-tumble air to it. Election posters for the notorious warlord and paramilitary chief, Arkan, were everywhere. Police in there purple-people-eater outfits stood arrogantly, with their hands on their hips giving us dirty looks. It was more than clear that we were something to be tolerated, not welcomed.
Later SSgt. Johnston would relate a story to me that about summed it up. "We used to go by this one place everyday and these two little kids would always run out to wave to us. One day as we were going past, they came out their mother ran out yelling at them and chased them off with a switch. The next day we came by and the kids looked to see if their mother was looking before they started waving. If the parents are acting that way I don't know what good is going to come of all this. It was pretty sick."
T THE FAR END of that one-horse town, we took a steep turn that took us further up into the hills -- toward the so-called headquarters where we were to pay a social visit on the local commander. The road got appreciably narrower and the hills steeper, almost closing in over us. If anyone had chosen to hit us they could have done so with impunity. I again checked the M203 and sorted out where the rest of its ammo was. The woods and ramshackle cabins we passed were a bushwhacker's paradise. We stayed on our toes and kept our eyes peeled. Smart fellow that he is, Lieutenant Dudley remarked, "We haven't had any real problems with people around here, but it only takes one with an ax to grind for it to get ugly in a hurry. We stay ready for anything." A hard thing to do when you are posted to a place where nothing happens day after day, but the trooper's sheer professionalism keeps them from getting too complacent.
When we arrived at the "headquarters" we found that the commander wasn't around but the place was in full swing anyway. Workers shuttled here and there renovating the place, turning it into a ski lodge we were told. For once I think they were on the level. The place was shaping up into a nice three-storey lodge complete with bars and ballrooms.
"I wish the commander was here," Lieutenant Dudley remarked, "His office is quite a sight. He's an avid hunter and he's got all kinds of hunting stuff and fox pelts hanging up. We always like to swap hunting and fishing stories after we deal with the business side of things." No one had the key to the office, but the place was shaping up nicely. I figure with the war more or less over, the fellow was feathering the nest a bit. Not unreasonable considering the circumstances, and his former soldiers made for a willing enough work force. So it goes.
By the time we got ready to go back down a cold drizzle had blown in over the hills, now lush with spring vegetation. After turning around, we headed back down, doubly watchful because we were going back out the way we had come in. No one seemed to give us much bother, though, and we cleared Sekovici without a problem. Forty-five minutes later we were rumbling back into Alcatraz.
While waiting for a lift back to the base, we passed the time with SSgt. Johnson and his partner in crime Sgt. Wilfredo "Cosmo" Cosme of Puerto Rico. They had their own little observation post/sleeping quarters set up on the top floor and passed the time plinking at plastic bottles on a neighboring relic with mail order BB guns, keeping their marksmanship skills honed. They call their little range "Sniper Alley".
The cavalry is "Hard core combat arms," in the words of another officer attached to the squadron, and the endless hours without action are especially hard on them. Cavalry Troopers are trained to a razor's edge in the finer points of reconnaissance and armored shock actions. Inactivity does not suit them at all and despite the few diversions they have made for themselves, it's hard not to crawl the walls.
"When I came down here I was expecting to get into a punch up." SSgt. Johnson recalled, "But nothings happening. I'd rather be back in Germany on exercise. If we ain't gonna get into it, get me the hell outa here." This feeling isn't helped when the locals they come into contact with consistently say that when IFOR leaves the war will be right back on. But then he softened his stance a little. "If it helps the kids then I'll live." He said with a shrug, turning his attention back to "Sniper Alley."
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