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Peacekeeping mission continues for Airmen in Kosovo

by Master Sgt. Scott Wagers
Air Force News Agency

3/4/2008 - CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo (AFPN) -- More than a dozen Airmen currently deployed here are helping 1,400 American Soldiers maintain stability here despite the riots and assault on the U.S. embassy in protest to Kosovo's declaration of independence Feb. 17 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Tech. Sgt. Scott Williams is one of four combat weathermen assigned to the 401st Air Expeditionary Group's Det. 2, combat weather team. Having previously deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina a few times earlier in his career, he said he didn't expect the Kosovo deployment to be "as entertaining as recent events have made it."

For many Americans, the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo that began nearly nine years ago has likely become a distant memory with blurred details since the war on terrorism took center stage in 2001. Despite this, the mission there still continues.

"We're certainly not taking the beating that guys in Iraq are, so we consider ourselves pretty lucky," Sergeant Williams said, describing the mood of the camp as having no visible signs of increased stress or tension.

"Nobody's going to bed with their body armor wrapped around their neck," he said. "It's just the usual heightened sense of awareness that everyone wearing a uniform normally assumes when situations like these arise."

Camp Bondsteel, named after Medal of Honor recipient Army Staff Sgt. James L. Bondsteel, honored for heroism in Vietnam, is located 25 miles south of Kosovo's capital city of Pristina and nearly 130 miles south of Belgrade where civil protests recently damaged the U.S. embassy there.

The 1,000-acre camp was built in 1999 to house U.S. peacekeeping forces deployed to Kosovo following Operation Allied Force, a NATO air campaign that halted the war between ethnic Albanians and the Yugoslav military teamed with Serbian police. It's estimated that the bitter three-year conflict killed more than 10,000 people and displaced nearly 1 million refugees.

While the international peacekeeping force that once numbered 50,000 has been scaled back over the last nine years, it's still very much alive. The official Kosovo Force Web site indicated that in April 2007 a total of 16,000 soldiers from 34 NATO and non-NATO countries continue to provide stability in the region.

Outside the seven-mile perimeter fence of the camp in the nearby community of Gnjilane, Sergeant Williams said the predominately-Albanian locals "love Americans" and that ever since the United States' acknowledgement of their country's independence, one could easily find American flags waving throughout local villages.

Sergeant Williams, deployed from the Air Force Combat Weather Center at Hurlburt Field, Fla., shares the combat weather team's 24/7 operation with three Air National Guardsmen from Indiana and Minnesota. Several times a day, they provide mass weather briefs to NATO and American rotary-wing aircrews as well as specific briefs for unique missions.

For the installation's population of 1,400 Soldiers assigned to the Kansas Army National Guard's 35th Infantry Division, they also provide wind chill notices, wind and lightning advisories and snow fall forecasts.

Sergeant Williams said he has supported Soldiers often throughout his career, having formerly been assigned to the 18th Weather Squadron at Fort Bragg, N.C.

The largest speck of "blue" (eight of 13 Airmen) deployed to Camp Bondsteel work at the post office under the watch of Capt. Christopher Palacios, a communications officer deployed from Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Upon being selected for his first deployment, Captain Palacios, a seven-year veteran and native to south Texas, said he didn't know much about Kosovo.

"I wasn't too familiar with the political climate there so I did some research on the Internet and talked to my sponsor to get a better idea," he said.

After arriving in Kosovo at the end of November, Captain Palacios was briefed on the postal mission, which includes traveling to remote locations to deliver and pickup sensitive mail. He said he considers this the most dangerous part of the postal mission.

"I would imagine it's not as stressful as being in Iraq," Captain Palacios said. "Still, there are people out there who could do some type of harm and being charged with the safety of Airmen who have to travel outside the wire here, it's something I think about all the time."

Having frequently traveled off-post in Kosovo, the captain described friendly locals living on a rural landscape with weak infrastructure laden with power outages, sanitation issues and pothole-scarred roads.

"You see all the things here that a new struggling nation has to deal with and work through," he said.

Captain Palacios has had to overcome a few struggles of his own on this deployment. The first occurred his second day on station in early December when he and his Airmen were hit with an avalanche of pre-holiday mail parcels.

Because there are no fixed-wing flights into the camp, the mail is trucked in each day from Germany, several countries away where a logistical snag along the way delayed shipment causing mail to quickly pile up. When the backlogged trucks finally arrived, there were 1,200 parcels that needed prompt distribution. Within 30 hours, Captain Palacios' two-day old team pushed the last parcel out the door, making it the largest reported daily volume in two years.

"If it weren't for the know-how of my five postal troops and the hard work of the remainder of the team (composed of two computer systems specialists), we could've never pulled it off," he said.

While assimilating into the Army's battle rhythm has been the biggest challenge for the Airmen, the postal team has forged a wonderful working relationship with the leadership here, Captain Palacios said.

In addition to playing basketball and volleyball with Soldiers, Captain Palacios said members of his postal team were offered an incentive helicopter ride by Army Brig. Gen. John E. Davoren, the Multinational Task Force-East Commander, in appreciation for the way his team triumphed over the backlog in pre-holiday mail in early December.

"It was a great example of how leadership says, 'You guys belong with us,'" Captain Palacios said.

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