Captain Meredith M. (Memi) LeBard is assigned to the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion, Maryland Army National Guard. She deployed with them in support of the 49th Armored Division, Texas National Guard's historic peacekeeping mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina in February 2000. What follows are excerpts from her journal, her own personal thoughts and feelings. These do not in any way represent official policy or opinion.
Friday, 11 Feb 2000
Much to my surprise, I am in Tuzla, Bosnia. We arrived safe and sound late last night. It took three days to get here from Fort Hood, Texas. Due to weather and maintenance issues, we were first routed through Gander, Newfoundland, then to Shannon, Ireland and finally into Taszar, Hungary, from whence we bused down to Tuzla.
The ten-hour bus ride was actually very interesting, driving through the rural towns in Hungary and Croatia, until we entered the devastation of Bosnia. Brcko in particular was pock marked with bullet holes with most buildings just razed. Everywhere there are signs of people rebuilding their lives. Regardless of ethnicity, it is obvious that all suffered. You can't break it down into simple terms. There were no good guys in the conflict. It put instant perspective on the deployment seeing some of the surrounding areas at the very outset. The countryside itself reminds me a lot of rural Pennsylvania. Certain sections look exactly like Fort Indiantown Gap, where we used to do our military training in college.
I am stationed at the main U.S. facility in Multinational Division North (MND(N)), called Eagle Base. The standard of living is actually very high considering that we are not in the U.S. Being a captain, I am housed in a two-person room in an actual building of sorts. We have a level of amenities equaling that of any isolated military garrison: recreation center, gym, running track, great dining hall (I now understand how people gain weight during their deployment, the trick will be to get plenty of exercise), first run movies shown at the theater, a pretty decent post exchange (PX), and e-mail access (thank goodness). On the whole, we are not wanting for much.
One thing I found sobering right off the bat was the abundance of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) signs all over the place (marking mines or other explosives that haven't detonated). That and the fact that you carry your weapon with you at all times. It is good to finally be here, however, not sitting in the airport for another 15 hours.
Even though it is only the second day here, I miss my boyfriend, Dave, my family and friends very much. Everyone here has a way of staying in touch with loved ones, whether that is through phone calls, daily letters, or e-mail. I carry pictures in my Day Runner - it is nice, whenever I open it I get a pleasant surprise. Also, I have made a promise to myself to take some time out each day to check e-mail and write letters so that I feel connected. I even picked up half a dozen of the "Any Service Member" ones today from little school kids around the country. I think that it is so cute that they write. There are so few chances to make a positive impact on a child's life.
People here have already started making plans for burning off our accrued leave come October. I have visions of sailing around the British Virgin Islands for a week. Just sailing around with Dave, drinking fruity drinks with umbrellas and snorkeling. Even if that's not exactly the way it happens, it's still a great fantasy.
I made it to the gym today. I'm trying to ingrain the habit in the operations center that I will be out of the net from 1100 until 1300 each day to workout and eat lunch. If I can set the precedent, I may have a chance. Exercise definitely helped me beat jet lag and get adjusted to the time zone faster. From here on out it will help me deal with stress.
Feeling proud of myself. I haven't smoked since we've arrived. I feel great and plan on keeping that trend going for the next nine months. Perhaps I've finally broken through the automatic army/smoking association.
I spoke with my first Russian soldier today. It was a very short conversation at the salad bar consisting of "Hello" and "Excuse me, I need to get the tomatoes", but it was enlightening. They eat so much! They load up two full plates of food then wrap up another to take back with them. In the Russian world, they've got it pretty good. They are getting paid in hard currency and they get access to the U.S. PX and mess halls.
Nationality-wise here, we have got the full mix: Russians, Latvians, Norwegians, Swedes, Italians, French, Danes, Scots (who I think look darling in their camouflage and tam o'shanters), Brits, of course the locals, and several others that I don't even recognize. Plus the non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives - embarrassing though it may be, I saluted a Red Cross woman the other day. She was wearing a U.S. camouflage uniform and her hat insignia resembled a lieutenant colonel's at night. At least I'm not the only one who's done it.
Obviously, there are computer facilities and a decent education center where soldiers can take classes from the University of Maryland and other schools, work on their undergraduate degree or graduate degree, take language courses, standardized test prep courses and interesting little seminars. I'd love to take a Serbo-Croatian language class. In addition, they show fairly recent and some first run movies at 2100 and 2300 each night in an auditorium-like tent (nicknamed the Goo Goo Tent because the rock band Goo Goo Dolls gave a free holiday concert there for the troops).
For the athletic minded among us, there is a good fitness center with a basketball court, a good-sized cardio room (with dozens of stair machines and treadmills), and a weight room. I just explored that today after my run.
I think for variety I'll alternate days of running with gym days. The outdoor track is terrific in my view. I much prefer running outside and the track allows you to do it with out the fear of being run over by any military vehicles or insane local drivers! Today when I was running I saw a C-130 Hercules transport plane take off as the track loops past the airstrip. Impressive. It has been quite a while since I'd last seen that. Not to mention, all the helicopters are lined up right across from the rugby pitch. So motivating!
I definitely lucked out in the living arrangements. I live in a metal shipping container called a connex. Where I am, the connexes are all joined together, roofed, with walkways down the middle and paneled on the inside, with one window and heat/air conditioning. Of course, being the army, it's nothing fancy. I'm sure the air force would have little chalets constructed by now. It's two per connex. I share mine with a female signal corps captain. The local nationals seem very friendly. We have several thousand that work here on Eagle Base, doing all the maintenance work (for Brown & Root), the cooking, the laundry, engineering, janitorial services, staffing the PX and the shops, and serving as translators in various staff sections. I suppose they would appreciate us, we pay them. Mind you, I try and talk to them in Serbo-Croatian. It breaks the ice - I don't have an extensive vocabulary yet, but I try. Not too many of the soldiers make the effort to learn or say "Hi." As I'm a naturally friendly person, I greet everyone appropriately. Several times I've gotten into conversations that I couldn't understand because my accent is believable. I have now taught myself how to say, "Slow down, I am just learning."
I believe the fairly good attitude towards NATO/SFOR that exists here also has a lot to do with the fact that Tuzla was largely untouched during the war. Plus, it is in the BiH Federation, as opposed to the Republica Srpska where a much more hard-line, pro-Serb attitude dominates. On the whole though, the people in all areas of the country just seem to want to live their lives.
There are certain things I will never mention to my mother as they would just worry her. Today they shut the motor pool down so explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and the combat engineers could come in and conduct de-mining operations. Somehow, in the very motor pool that is used daily by soldiers, some unexploded ordnance or mine (I don't know all the details) was discovered. This whole country is a minefield in my mind. I'll just walk on the paved roads, thank you. It's that whole self-preservation thing kicking in.
Once we left the Federation (the Bosnian/Croat state), the passers by got a little bit more indifferent to our presence. Those in the Federation stared at the buses and waved, usually with a smile. Those in the RS would stare and only every so often wave, sometimes giving the three-fingered salute of Serbian unity (where the ring and pinky finger are bent down). It apparently means, "Only unity can save the Serbs." When we stopped at a gas station to use the facilities (and I use that term lightly since they were nothing more than a hole in the floor over which you had to squat), there was a VRS (Army of the Republica Srpska) soldier standing at the intersection. He didn't seem too amused to have American soldiers taking his picture, probably thinking "stupid SFOR tourists" or something even less friendly. Or he could have just been cold and wet (it was raining) and not in the posing mood. At this same road junction there were several buildings painted with graffiti from Arkan's Tigers. That was kind of bizarre. Once Arkan was so powerful in the area and now is dead - something that often seems to happen to powerful, violent men. We drove all the way down to the south of Srebrenica, through Zvornik, Bratunac, and Potocari. At the southern end of town, and up a huge mountain, we turned around and began the educational portion of the trip where a Dutch observation post once stood. We retraced the Serb advance of 11 July 1995 when they took the town, then a UN safe area, routing the peacekeeping Dutch Battalion. After it was over, some 7,000 Bosniac Muslim men remained unaccounted for, many gathered together and executed. I think I am going to read the book "End Game" to get a better understanding of what we saw today.
Stopping for about an hour in Srebrenica was eye opening. There we were, a group of about 40 U.S. soldiers, trying to not look too threatening, wandering around this depressing, trashed town. The buildings were riddled with bullet holes, some gutted completely. Trash was everywhere, along with mangy, stray dogs. The people seemed reticent until you spoke to them. Some warmed to us, smiling and letting us take their picture. All the children wanted bon-bons (what they call all candy). We sauntered around the streets, absorbing the damage and repair, what little has been fixed in the past five years. I have never felt like such an intruder. It was actually a relief to get back on the bus and leave.
Other places we stopped and discussed events were at the Dutch Battalion headquarters (where at one point close to 25,000 refugees were gathered) and the warehouse where several hundred men were executed by automatic weapons fire. That place gave me the heebie-jeebies. It smelled strange and the structural damage done by the bullets was astounding. And yet, right across the street lived several families with their wash hung out to dry. Were they desensitized to the violence or perhaps too afraid to do anything? Needless to say, we all came out of the day understanding a bit more why we are here, to provide the presence that will allow the people to reassemble a life.
Now that we are involved, I think it will be a long time before we can successfully disengage from the area. There are no issues defined in black and white here, only varying shades of gray. No good, no bad, only horrible and worse. I am a bit down, but it was hard to come away from a day of pondering death and seeing the still evident destruction without finding it difficult to feel chipper. This is one of those nights when I could really use a great big hug and cuddle to restore my faith in humanity.
I've shaken my crud and am back to my normal, bouncy (in a professional, military way of course) self. Our weekends are pretty much like a slower version of our weekdays. The biggest difference is that there isn't an evening briefing to the battalion commander, so you tend to get caught up on a lot of other work that gets pushed aside during the week when you are working on the briefing. It is amazing that so few here actually produce anything, the rest of us spend our time (or so it seems) briefing the results of others' collection and analysis. The modern army, you have to love it!
About half a dozen of us from the operations section just watched the first episode of season two out in the bunker - a nickname for a room out behind the headquarters building that has camouflage netting inside giving it the feel of a bunker. With a big screen TV and VCR, it also doubles as a meeting room, the map storage room and the TV room. It was great. We bought dinner at Frank's Franks (chili cheese dogs and nachos supreme), popped in the tape and had a flash of normalcy. That was until I looked up at the netting on the ceiling. These tapes will be well worn before I leave, as there are already many requests to borrow them. I will be nice and share, but they are controlled property.
I just started "End Game: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe's Worst Massacre since WWII" last night. A little light reading before bed always helps settle the soul. Not to worry, I have come to terms with the fact that I am here temporarily and can only do so much. I want to learn as much as I can in order to better analyze the situation.