Deploying to the Field

26 - 29 Jan 1996

Fri 26 Jan

Sleep in - up at 0645. More freezing rain - we may not get out again today. We hear the roads are amber - we can move with chains. We spend the morning trying to get sandbags without success. We pick up water and MRE's, stencil IFOR on vehicles, and wait. While running an errand, I stop at an intersection near Div HQ to see a Russian BRDM go by, complete with Russian flag trailing behind. I had my camera but was so flabbergasted I totally forgot to take a picture.

Convoys must have 4 or more vehicles in the US sector, a rule that persisted the whole time we were there. We were supposed to get IFOR ID cards in addition to our military ID's, but HQ was out of film. We went downrange without them. I never did get one.

We convoy out into a frigid landscape of haze, ice and snow. We pass weird conical haysatcks, and a village with a mosque (This was Donje Dubrave - we would pass that mosque quite a few times going to and from Tuzla Main). Countryside looks like a poor version of Germany. Farmers work the fields but live in villages. In one town we pass a bullet-pocked Orthodox church.

The road winds into the mountains. Just north of Kladanj the fog thins and we get a few moments of sun. A guard rail on the highway is riddled with shrapnel holes - this spot was visible a long way off and obviously any vehicle passing by was fair game for artillery. We turn east onto Route Mississippi. We pass an infantry patrol near what would be our home, and several other camps. The road runs beside a river through a deep gorge. We cross the ZOS, see nice mountain scenery (we would get to know it very well). There is battle damage here and there. The road climbs and we enter fog. In the mist I spot the sign for Vlasenica in Cyrillic letters. Later on I would get to know the area well but right now, in the fog, I am disoriented.

We turn off toward 2 BCT HQ, in a former Muslim settlement. Now all the houses are burned and roofless. Personal belongings are strewn about. In the fog it is profoundly sad and depressing. These were once nice houses. One day these people were living happy lives and the next their lives are destroyed. We hear Vlasenica officials do not want 2 BCT on this site; terrible things happened here.

We get in about 1600 with barely enough light to see, and in the fog it is impossible to get a good idea of the layout. We have a real snarl getting any place to stay, but end up putting small groups in various tents. The G5 briefs us at 1800, COL Batiste, the commander, at 2030. We have a final "info dump" at 2100, get to bed at 2200.

Why 2BCT picked this site for an HQ is a mystery. It's 2 miles in on a rough, muddy, barely passable road. The hilltop site is defensible but the perimeter is so big I doubt that would help much, and if they ever have to leave in a hurry they will be in real trouble. Later on I heard that the initial choice had been an even more inaccessible mountain top north of Kladanj. Brown and Root, civilian contractors, are supposed to build base camps but are not at this site yet. (Batiste, to his credit, saw that his supported units had base camps first before building his own.)

Sat 27 Jan

Up at 0600. Still dense fog and cold. We see what we could only sense last night - the hilltop is a quagmire, with ankle deep mud in places. We convoy out at 0800 for Vlasenica, stop at the Panorama Hotel (aptly named, once we got to see it on a clear day). One of the 2BCT officers needs to make some phone calls to arrange for gravel for the roads. This is our first time out and we are not sure what sort of security posture to take, but it is pretty quiet. Some local kids come around and we swap pleasantries. They try out their English and we our Serbian. A couple of small dogs chase each other around; I get intensely homesick for my own dog. We get back to camp at 1100.

Last night we parked our trailer in the mud. After getting back, I try to get it out but only dig in deeper. Gene Jakubenas gives it a shot and digs in deeper yet, jackknifing the trailer to boot. Finally another unit pulls us out from the rear. We get on the road and meet SFC Moore, who is also trying to help somebody out. They keep sliding downslope toward a tree. So we hook onto their aft end and pull them out from both directions at once. Then, as we head out, we have to back up because of an M113 towing another track in.

On the way out, we pass an AVLB in the gorge. That's fun. We're almost falling into the river, the treads are about six inches from our faces, and the bridge part is actually hanging overhead. Also one of our vehicles dinged mirrors with an MP vehicle.

We finally get to the 4-12 area about 1245. I had thought nothing could be worse than the BCT HQ. Wrong-o! It can always get worse in Bosnia. The parking area is an ankle deep sea of mud and standing water. Unbelievable. And they have no place for us to stay, and no dry ground anywhere for a tent. The weather is the usual, foggy, dark and cold. This, beyond a doubt, is one of the most depressing days of my entire life. It is the closest I have come in my adult life to wanting to cry. We give some thought to simply living in our vehicle until things sort out, but we finally locate a patch of ground that is not too bad, move the trailer as close as we can get, and pitch our tent in the dusk. We manage to get a platform so at least the center of the tent is dry, and lay cardboard to keep the rest clean. I finally get a letter off to Shawn.

Brown and Root, bless their hearts, are here and building living modules. 30 people are due to move in tomorrow.

We meet the 96 CA Team, led by CPT Dennis Greenwood. The NCO's are SFC Mark Styron, SFC Tom Way and SFC Scott Wienhold. Wienhold is the medic of the team. Way is a former school teacher from New Hampshire who went active after a long break when he discovered it paid better. Sad commentary on how we value teachers.

At 2000 I go to an NCO meeting. This is my first look at the HHC commander, CPT Cloutier. He comes across as a gung-ho type (He is that, but to do the man justice, there is more to him than that). He wants to camouflage and sandbag the living modules. As if everyone doesn't already know where they are. As for sandbagging, we're in a valley. Unless they sandbag the roofs, the modules will always be vulnerable. He has ordered 40 tons of sand - he would do better to get gravel for the mud. Cloutier has 45 days left and I get the impression a lot of people are keeping count.

Supposedly we will move to PAKBAT in 5 days or so. PAKBAT is a former truck stop and warehouse now occupied by a Pakistani UNPROFOR battalion.

Sun 28 Jan

Comfort, Miller and Reschke leave at 0600 for a mission. I stay behind to coordinate with the 96th. SFC Styron, who is a great guy, helps with everything - setting up the heater, getting weapons cleaning kits, and so on.

Brown and Root is moving very fast, so fast that they create a problem for the 96th. They have a boardwalk around the future living area, and plan to build from the cenetr out. So everyone in the center, including the 96th, has to clear out. Styron says if he moves, he leaves. I spend most of the afternoon at the 96 CA tent, trying unsuccessfully to load the ANCD, the black box that contains the codes for the SINCGARS radio. The 96 CA is told officially they will have to leave. Styron is furious. They are told they have to move today but get the OK to move first thing in the morning.

Freezing at dawn, warming a bit later on. Low clouds, occasional hints of clearing, even a little hazy sun in the afternoon. The hills here are steep, rounded, brooding. A few hundred feet above us the trees are all covered with frost and ice. Low clouds hide the tops. It looks a lot like the Appalachians.

A Bradley hit an anti-personnel mine in a supposedly clear area yesterday. No damage. The Bn Cdr says the area was marked but local kids swipe the markers.

Comfort and Reschke drive back to Brigade for the Sunday Data Dump. We have steak for dinner here. We now have heat and light in our tent. I get another letter off to Shawn.

Mon 29 Jan

Up at 0600 to help 96 CA move their tent. Backbreaking work hauling things 200 yards through the mud to their new site. Most of their guys stay back to set up. Comfort, Miller and Reschke take our vehicle, I ride with CPT Greenwood. The Bn Cdr goes to Sekovici to meet the mayor. Comfort goes in, the rest of us pull vehicle guard.

It soon turns out that I get to be the focus of attention with my little Serbian. Also a few people speak Russian. The Serb soldiers think it's a great joke that we are muddy but they are clean. I tell them we live in the mud (blato) and have little water for cleaning. They bring over a fire hose and clean off some of our boots. Looking inside a Humvee is also a real novelty.

A number of soldiers, some from the Drina Corps, gather round. One fellow who speaks Russian explains that they are Spetsialniy Nadsatelstvo (Spetznatz). Their crest is a black wolf with red eyes on a dark blue circle. Above and below the circle is Manevra Brigada (in Cyrillic characters - Maneuver Brigade). Within the circle is Vukovi sa Drina (Wolves from the Drina).

One guy in particular has a lot to say (in Russian). He says Americans get a false picture of the Serbs, that the Serbs are good. Americans and Serbs used to be friends before this. He was in Srebrenica (where mass graves are located) as a tank driver. He said mujahadeen were there, threatening to kill all the Serbs, so the Muslims were all driven out and went to Tuzla. I didn't press the issue of the graves. A year ago the Muslims fired shells from Kladanj. One hit the bus station, killed a pregnant woman and her son and daughter. There was also a big battle in the mountains where a lot of Muslims were killed, but he claims they also killed a lot of civilians in the area. He also claimed to know of Muslim massacres at Trnovo and Ilovice, south of Sarajevo.

He said Gen Mladic is a good soldier but a tough disciplinarian. Several times he mentioned the U.S.-French bombing that stopped the Serbs, and felt Sarajevo was ready to fall before then. (At least he had the courtesy to include the French. Actually, the Serbs probably didn't want the cost of a house-to house battle for the city.) He also heard (correctly) that a U.S. soldier in Sarajevo was wounded in the neck, lightly. That's the only spot not covered by Kevlar. The shot was almost certainly intended to harass rather than kill.

Military plates bear the initials BCP, Cyrillic for Vojska Srbski Republiki (Army of the Serbian Republic).

We return to base - now called Lodgement Area Demi - about 1400, visit the TOC and run into CPT Cloutier, who seems nicer that I was led to believe. We get disturbing news - we can't move to PAKBAT until it's been cleared for explosives and listening devices. My dream of a more comfortable home is slipping.

Just when I though the stupidity was getting a bit less, the mess tent was moved out of the central area to the far side of the parking lot, a 1/4-mile slog in the dark through a sea of mud. My evaluation after getting there: "This is too f------ stupid for words!" The mud in the wheeled vehicle lot is so deep it scrapes the undercarriage of a Humvee. I almost high-centered coming in.

I am not impressed with the setup here. The vehicles are all but immobilized by mud, the only egress is via two narrow bridges, the main outlet makes a sharp bend through a village. They can keep people from coming in but they can also be easily bottled up; one of Murphy's Laws of Combat is "Make it too hard for the enemy to get in and you can't get out." They have a barbed wire tangle on the flood plain to stop the human wave attack that will come across the river and through the brush, but the open fields behind the camp are wide open and the furniture factory immediately behind the camp is a huge blind spot.

Blacks are a real novelty to most of the locals. At the NCO meetings a big issue is getting local barbers to cut black hair. They don't want to - not out of racism - they simply don't know how.

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Last update 23 Apr 1997