EDINBURGH, Ind. — They arrived in groups, three flights to be precise, spread over the course of a week in late September. All descended the ramp from their respective plane to clear Customs and board buses bound for Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, Ind. Thus, the Soldiers of Kosovo Force 15 returned to the U.S. after a year-long mission in Kosovo, an eastern European country that gained independence from Serbia.
The KFOR mission began June 12, 1999, in the wake of the Kosovo War between ethnic Albanian separatists and the military of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, which was dominated by Serbia. For 14 years and fifteen rotations, the Army has deployed a task force to this remote corner of Europe, which has played a disproportionate role in history. The 20th Century began with a war started in the Balkans and it ended with a different war in the same region.
According to 1st Lt. Matt Alexander, personnel officer with KFOR 15, the NATO mission is essential to maintain the peace and help the people of Kosovo.
“Kosovo is in a very interesting spot in its history,” said Alexander. “It’s not an all-out war like Afghanistan, but it’s not as developed as America is. It’s in a tense spot, so without military over watch, what’s called a peace-enforcing mission, it’s very likely that it would boil up and explode into a war,” he said.
While Kosovo may not dominate public awareness like other global flashpoints and it is easy to dismiss the commitment due to shifting priorities, but this mission is essential, said Alexander.
“It’s easy to look at it and say ‘hey, nothing’s going on there. Why are we there? No one’s shooting each other,’ said Alexander. “Well, they’re not shooting each other because we’re there. It’s because of our presence. Because they see us on a day-to-day basis, they, the people, see that we’re there to protect them and the bad guys know that if they act up we’re going to roll out and get harder on them.”
Col. Jeffrey Liethen, commander of Multinational Battle Group East, Kosovo Force 15, said that Kosovo occupies key terrain in Eastern Europe; that it is a connecting piece of land where east meets west.
“It is important to maintain the rule of law there to prevent smuggling, human trafficking, drug trafficking and transportation of terrorists back and forth,” said Liethen. “But more importantly it is to maintain peace and a safe and secure environment because there is some friction between ethnic Albanians that live in Kosovo and ethnic Serbians.”
Liethen said that before Yugoslavia disintegrated into the all the small countries that we know of today, Kosovo was under Serbian rule and there was a point when the Serbian armed forces tried to drive the Kosovo ethnic Albanians out. There was bloodshed, killings, and over 200,000 Kosovo Albanians either fled outside the country or into the mountains.
“Then NATO got involved, the U.S. got involved and started a bombing campaign that many will recall,” he said. “After the Serbians were driven back into Serbia, ethnic Albanians, Kosovo Albanians, started coming back to the country. Then it was payback time. So there are no real angels in Kosovo at this time and that friction remains. That’s why it’s important for NATO, the U.S. being a part of NATO, to be there.”
The 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade headquarters, which formed the command of Multinational Battle Group East, was in charge of a multinational force that consisted of over 1,800 soldiers from 30 states and nine different nations from NATO.
“Our mission was actually threefold,” said Liethen, “one, to maintain a safe and secure environment for the people of Kosovo, secondly, to preserve freedom of movement throughout the country and thirdly, to help build the institutions of Kosovo.”
According to Liethen, the soldiers of KFOR 15 spent most of their time initially maintaining freedom of movement.
“There were some issues in northern Kosovo where some of the local populace had blocked main supply routes, which made it very expensive to airlift supplies to our soldiers stationed at remote bases in the north,” he said. “As we progressed through our initial period there, we assisted in not only physically removing roadblocks, but also negotiating with Kosovo nationals to take them down by themselves,” he said.
“As time went on, we became deeply involved in maintaining a safe and secure environment,” said Liethen. “There was some anticipated civil unrest because of Serbian national elections were occurring in Kosovo for those citizens with dual citizenship in Kosovo and Serbia. Nothing came to pass because of that, although we were trained, ready and well equipped to respond to any riots or civil unrest or damage to public or private property.”
Liethen said the soldiers he deployed and led were superb, completing missions with efficiency and professionalism.
“I think one the most I was most proud of was our ability to come together as a team. There were nine different nations involved. Between 100 and 150 people from those countries joined about 800 soldiers from 30 states. We came together very quickly a team. We were cohesive and functioned like a well-oiled machine.”
“Although, not a lot of Americans know we’re in Kosovo or what we’re doing there, those I just deployed with and brought back home really made a difference in the lives of all the citizens of Kosovo, not only in maintaining a safe and secure environment, preserving freedom of movement, but also building institutions,” said Liethen. “We brought sophisticated Western medicine to hospitals and clinics of Kosovo, which are quite undeveloped compared to our standards. We were deeply involved in maturing their educational system at the high school level and college level; we were deeply involved in mentoring the law enforcement community in Kosovo. We made a difference in the lives of the people of Kosovo and every soldier, no matter what state they’re from, should be very proud of what they accomplished in that young, developing country.”
Alexander said the overall Kosovo deployment was a very rewarding experience.
“I think it was a great time to expand our horizons,” he said. “I’m coming up as a junior officer, I’ve been a platoon leader and executive officer It allowed me to put my feet in the administrative world gave me a feel for how the Army works with staff and how a personnel system works. I thought it was a relatively easy mission compared to Afghanistan or Iraq; we didn’t have too many people shooting at us, people in Kosovo love Americans. It was a really great mission that allowed us to develop as soldiers and people.”
The final step, and it could be argued the longest, is the demobilization process prior to their returning to their respective homes and lives.
“This is my third deployment,” said Liethen. “I’ve been through three different mobilization stations, and every one has its strengths and weaknesses. Here at Camp Atterbury, the strength is, and it is the most important strength, taking care of soldiers. I see the staff here working well beyond the end of a normal duty day. Often, I will thank them, and their response is: ‘Sir, it’s all about taking care of soldiers’. You don’t see that attitude everywhere you go, but you sure see it at Camp Atterbury.”