WASHINGTON – Army Reserve Sgt. Jen Perry was hesitant about her deployment to Bosnia last fall. After Sept. 11, she wondered if there wasn’t something better for her to be doing than peacekeeping in southeastern Europe.
“I felt like we had a bigger mission at home than over there,” said Perry, who left her post at Aberdeen Proving Ground on Sept. 19 to join 2,651 Americans who were serving as part of a 20,000-strong NATO Stabilization Force.
That attitude changed soon after she arrived in Bosnia and saw firsthand how much the peacekeeping force was needed.
“I’m very grateful I was able to go on the mission and help the country,” said Perry, one of 261 Maryland reservists in the 29th Division who returned this month from a six-month deployment in the Balkans.
And those who feared they would not be contributing in Bosnia to the war on terror need not have worried.
Even though they were more than 2,700 miles from Kabul, the peacekeepers faced off shortly after they arrived with suspected al Qaeda operatives, remnants of the Muslim fighters who poured into the region to help Bosnian Muslims in their fight against the Serbs during the 1993-95 civil war.
Acting on a U.S. intelligence tip of a potential attack, American troops – – including some members of the Annapolis-based 158th Cavalry — raided an airfield just north of Sarajevo in September. The raid turned up weapons, as well as nuclear, biological and chemical equipment and captured several suspected terrorists, said Maj. Drew Sullins, a spokesman for the 29th Division.
“We got them before they got us,” Sullins said. He said two of those detained in the raid were repatriated to Egypt, eight were sent to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an unspecified number of others who were not considered dangerous were released.
But Maryland reservists were happy to report that most of the mission was not so exciting.
Brig. Gen. Steven Blum, the commander of the mission, said the operation as a whole ran smoothly and he characterized the mission as “hugely successful.”
“Our goals of keeping the peace in Bosnia were absolutely accomplished,” he said.
The troops incurred no injuries or fatalities, there was no accidental discharge of weapons and nobody was killed or wounded. Blum also said there were no suicides, which is rare considering the size of the force and the duration of the deployment.
Blum, a Maryland resident, credited the relative ease of the operation to the Army’s exceptional training. The unit trained for two years before its deployment.
“No soldier saw anything in Bosnia that they hadn’t seen over here, which makes accomplishing the mission a sure thing,” he said.
Of the 4,700 troops under Blum’s command, 2,049 were foreigners, hailing from 12 different countries, including Russia, Turkey and Denmark. Blum said that while working with the foreign troops was an exciting experience — it was the first time he had commanded foreigners — it required good communication because each group had to be dealt with separately.
But Blum said his colleagues were “extraordinarily cooperative and very professional and fairly easy to get along with.”
Maj. Joe Miller, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot who is a lawyer in civilian life, served as a liaison officer to the British, Dutch and Canadian forces involved in the peacekeeping mission.
“Europeans are more used to working with people from different backgrounds,” he said. “I learned a lot from them.”
Miller, 35, said the most challenging part of the job was being separated from his wife in Baltimore, while living in a shipping container with only a small electrical heater to stay warm.
Perry agreed that the most difficult part of the assignment was being away from friends and family for so long, especially during the holidays.
But despite being thousands of miles away from both his home and the war in Afghanistan, Miller did not feel forgotten. Besides the support he received from friends and family, he said he and his fellow reservists all received cards from American school children thanking them for their service.
For Sullins it was a second tour of duty — he also served in Bosnia in 1995.
“The country has made great strides, but still has a long way to go,” he said, adding that now the locals need to do more to stabilize the country. “We’ve taken the country as far as we can.”