Indiana National Guard – SFOR 15
Bosnia - Herzegovina
Many fine books and articles exist to tell
the story of the history of the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Two good ones that I read during our training
period for this mission were “Yugoslavia, Death of a Nation” by Laura Silber on the causes of the conflict and “Balkan
Battlegrounds” on the war itself.
In Bosnia’s civil war, the number killed is somewhere between 50,000 and
250,000 depending on which organization gives the numbers. Bosnia's state Health Protection Office gives the
following casualty figures for 1992-1995: “Killed/missed are 278,000
people (6.37% of pre-war B-H
population), and displaced 1.37 million residents of B-H (31.39%).” The ratio of wounded (attended by a doctor)
to killed is roughly 4 to 1, so there were more than a million wounded. Similar percentages applied to America would mean more
than 17 million dead, 65 million wounded and 80 million homeless. Though
beautiful, Bosnia’s rugged terrain can mean that homelessness is a death
sentence. The process was labeled as “ethnic cleansing”.
The United Nations was ineffective in stopping the conflict, and at
times seemed to make the situation worse.
One of the worst examples of this is found in the story of Srebrenica. Fighting between Bosnians and Serbs swirled
around the small town. The United
Nations offered the Bosnians “safe haven” at Srebrenica if their
soldiers would lay down their arms.
Thousands fled into town.
However, when one Serb paramilitary group approached the area, the
United Nations ordered its peace keepers to stand aside and not interfere. When the gunfire ceased, several thousand
Bosnian men and boys were dead. The dead
are buried in a small valley near the town of Potocari.
Because the killers sought to hide many of the mass graves, bodies are
still being found.
The siege of Sarajevo caught the world’s attention.
Sarajevo is the capitol of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I first learned of it in history class as the
city where a Serb assassin killed Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and sparked the First World War. It embraced a happier place in history when
it hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. With
the collapse of the USSR, the countries of Eastern Europe found themselves in a power vacuum. Several, notably Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, were home to a variety of strong ethnic
groups. Unfortunately for Yugoslavia, politicians and military leaders grabbed
for power, and some of the most successful were the most ruthless. On March 3, 1992, political leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina
declared independence from Yugoslavia and named Sarajevo the capitol of the new republic. The Yugoslavian military, seeking to keep Yugoslavia intact, opposed this. For two months, tensions heightened. On April 5, 1992, Serbs opened fire on a peace march and
killed two young women as they crossed a bridge in downtown Sarajevo. Some
consider this the official start of the siege, though the city was not
effectively ringed by Serb military until the end of April.
The Yugoslavian military had the artillery
and the tanks, but the Sarajevans effectively used
the maze of the city to hold them off.
They would wait until a tank was in a narrow street and blow its
treads. Then it sat like a cork in a
bottle. The Sarajevans
would not give in. Many were shot by
snipers or killed by artillery and mortars as they sought water and food. Open air markets were the only places to
find food, clothes etc. There were times
when artillery and mortar shells from the besiegers hit those markets. Courageous news crews reported the siege from
within the city. This picture (left)
shows the body of seven-year-old sniper victim Nermin
Divovic (Photo by Enric
Individual deaths by sniper
bullet were so common they dulled the sense of outrage. But
film crews succeeded in showing the West the footage of what happens when a
large artillery or mortar round smashes into a market filled with shoppers. Sarajevans made
simple monuments to the victims of such massacres. At every site where a shell killed more than
5 people, they filled the crater with red cement to create what is called a
Unfortunately, there are many Sarajevo roses in this city. The picture on the right shows one at the
wall of the Catholic Cathedral in Sarajevo. Deep
shrapnel scars on the wall give an idea of the force of the metal fragments
that tore though the people there.
Here is a listing I compiled of some of the
worst events: May 27, 1992 a mortar
shell killed 16 people in a bread line;
June 1, 1993 mortar kills 15, wounds 100 at soccer game; June 12, 1993, artillery kills 8 at funeral; June 27, 1993, mortar kills
seven youths aged 4-22; January 22,
1994, mortar kills six children sledding;
February 4, 1994, mortar kills 10, wounds 18 in food line; February 5, 1994, mortar kills 68 and wounds over 200 shoppers at the Merkale
Market. The numbers of dead and wounded
in each event are disputed, but the thousands of graves in the field outside
the Olympic stadium speak volumes, as do Serbian news reels showing Serb
snipers and artillery firing into the city.
Unfortunately, the United Nations again was ineffective in stopping the
killing. One old man, interviewed in a
newsreel said, “We have no use for peacekeepers, there is no peace to
keep. We need someone to be a
peacemaker.” After the Merkale massacre the United States and countries of Western Europe decided intervention was necessary; a
peacemaker had to come from outside Yugoslavia. They
brought political will and the military force of NATO into action. The result of NATO action and political
mediation led by United States President Bill Clinton,
was the Dayton Peace Accords signed on December 14, 1995. An
international organization with political, judicial, monetary and military
powers would enforce the peace and create conditions for continued peace maintained
by the Bosnians themselves. IFOR and SFOR were to implement the military
portion of this organization.
The United Nations was displaced by a 60,000
soldier NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) which worked to stop the fighting
and create zones of separation. There
would be one country, Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it would have two entities, the “Federation”
and the “Republic
of Srpska.” with a demilitarized zone between
them. Their weapons went to specified
sites for storage or destruction.
Illegal weapons caches were rooted out and destroyed. IFOR also opened the roads and repaired or
replaced bridges so that commerce, relief agencies and people were once again
free to safely move about. Bosnia-Herzegovina
did not revert to its prewar state. Ethnic
cleansing had been too successful, as is shown if you compare the ethnic
distribution before the war (left) and after the war (right). At least now, however, there would be peace,
the opportunity to rebuild, and justice instead of revenge.
The first peaceful elections were the signal for the Stabilization
Force (SFOR) to replace IFOR. SFOR
troops came from NATO, the British Commonwealth countries and many non-NATO countries interested in stability and
peace in the region. SFOR organized into three regional task forces with
overall NATO headquarters at Sarajevo. An
American unit has typically led those troops in the north eastern sector of
Bosnia-Herzegovina. This sector has been
named Multi-National Division (MND), Multi-National
Brigade (MNB) and Multi-National Task Force (MNTF) North. Each denotes that the number of SFOR troops has
continually decreased as Bosnian systems assumed more and more control. The
goal was that eventually SFOR would no longer be needed. Our SFOR 15 signaled that Bosnia had reached that goal; we were the last SFOR
force. The units that served as the
primary force in our sector are a proud roll call of the United States
Army. We in the 38th Infantry
Division were proud to take our place in the line when our time came. This picture shows their unit crests while
our Task Force Sergeant Major, CSM Severe stands guard.
SFOR had several tasks. One was
to continue the drawdown in weapons held by proper Bosnian forces and ensure
there was no need for an arms race. SFOR
also worked to find, seize and destroy illegal weapons. SFOR assisted in the discovery and removal of
mines and unexploded ordinance (called UXO).
This took on a rather unusual twist for our engineers when a very low
river exposed a World War II heavy bomb next to a vital bridge. They could not explode it without damaging the
bridge, so they burned it out as one would a flare, just a very giant flare.
SFOR did not take sides. Bravery
and humanity were present in all groups.
Croats, Bosnians and Serbs risked their lives for peace. Unfortunately
all of the groups also had criminals in their midst. We SFOR peacekeepers were there to protect
and aid those seeking peace and justice instead of power or retribution. SFOR did an excellent job at this. It gained a reputation for honesty, courage
and impartiality. The people learned to
believe they were safer with us than with their neighbor who had the secret
arms cache. Many of our discoveries were
made possible by tips from the Bosnians who wanted the safety and peace we
offered. Another thing I noticed was
that many of the discovered weapons were in a very sorry, often ruined
state. SFOR had been so good at finding
them that die-hards resorted to burial and other methods of hiding that led to
rapid deterioration. So, even though some weapons probably escaped our
vigilance, there is a good chance many will no longer function.
I believe SFOR’s primary task was its
support of the civilian agencies working to restore the various civil
organizations needed for a lasting peace.
This meant the reestablishment of rule of law, support for honest judges
and police and removal of the corrupt, free flow of commerce for food and jobs
and assisting many international civilian aid agencies. To do this SFOR needed to be among the
people. SFOR patrolled to discourage
illegal activities and keep still-raw feelings from igniting conflict. Patrols could also gather information that
led to the seizure of illegal arms or possible war criminals. As the people responded to the work of peace,
SFOR responded by decreasing its presence.
Besides decreasing troop numbers, troop convoy size decreased, as did
armament. The Chaplain of an earlier
SFOR expressed surprise when he learned our Chaplain teams went out in single
vehicles with just two armed personnel.
We had our body armor with us but did not wear it. In his time Chaplain teams
were in two to three vehicle convoys, heavily armed and armored. We knew there
was some risk to going out lightly armed, but part of what we were doing in
SFOR 15 was to show the Bosnians our confidence that they could
maintain the peace once we left. During
SFOR 15 we also transitioned our forward troops from walled camps to local houses
in the communities. We called them LOT houses. People with a need, complaint or exposed mine knew
they could go to one of these houses and our soldiers would work to get them
the remedy they needed. One of our LOT houses
turned out to have been a bordello at one time. This caused some concern until we found it was
one of our most effective houses. Just
about everyone in that city knew where it was.
SFOR preached mine awareness. Nine
years of peace meant that the children had become ignorant to the appearance of
mines, shells and grenades. This was a
good sign since it meant they were learning war no more. But it also meant danger because so many
mines and unexploded shells remained.
This task included digging out and destroying illegal arms caches, and
assisting in the apprehension of those war criminals still at large. We also provided stability and security for
businesses to reopen and rebuilding to begin.
SFOR did an outstanding job in Bosnia.
Those willing to believe well of America and democracy would benefit from studying
our intervention here. Twice in the last
century instability, nationalism and ethnic grievances in this part of the
world plunged the whole world into war.
Here an international coalition prevented that. There was no immediate financial prize here
for those peacemakers. There is no oil
under Sarajevo, Tuzla or Zvornik. For those interested in appearances there was
nothing to gain and much to lose. There
could be no triumphal victory parade because prevention is unprovable,
but there would be recriminations if the mission failed. Here the solution involved military might,
but only as a balanced part of political, financial, religious and social
efforts. Here America, the British Commonwealth and Western Europe were patient and kept up the effort until
the peacemakers had truly routed the warmongers. The warmongers had tried to say different
cultures could not live together in peace.
The NATO coalition was a multicultural effort. When the Bosnians saw American troops they
saw the colors of the rainbow in our skin.
Our dog tags spelled out over 50 different religious faiths. Whenever I spoke to civic groups or religious
leaders in Bosnia I pointed to America’s strength. I liked to explain how we were strong because
of our differences, not in spite of them.
As did their predecessors, SFOR 15 soldiers
went above and beyond. The Bosnians,
being mostly Moslem, had a special kinship with our Turkish Battalion. The Turkish soldiers helped rebuild and
furnish schools and did medical missions to isolated communities. American units did such missions (called MEDCAPs) as well. I
was privileged to participate in one MEDCAP that was a joint Turkish and
American effort. We drove back into the
mountains to a small village with a school large enough to serve as the
clinic. The people walked in from miles
around. They served us their special
coffee and sweet pastries the whole time we were there. The kids talked the Turkish commander into an impromptu
soccer game. It was an international effort
as Turkish and American Docs, Dentists, Medics and Nurses healed many a person
that day. I gave out toys to the youngsters
who faced a needle or getting their teeth worked on. Mainly I tried not to get in the way. SFOR soldiers found those aid organizations that
were doing an especially good job or a school or hospital that needed help. They then helped them with their spare time and
by having family and friends send support from back home. One such group that our Chaplain teams
adopted was “Friends of Bosnia” which was run by Edmina of Bosnia and Chris Bragdon
of the U.S. Chris and Edmina
worked from a closet-size office to promote education, especially in computer
skills, for jobs. The Chaplains got them
computers, programs and funds, all donated. As GIs always have, our soldiers
bought candy and cookies with their own money and gave them out to the children
during patrols. These efforts by our
soldiers were not propaganda; most were never recorded. They were works of genuine goodwill for a
fine people who had gone through a rough time – one human being to
The Department of Defense tagged the 38th Infantry Division,
Army National Guard, to lead the United State’s portion of SFOR-15 in,
Multinational Task Force – North (MNTF (N)). We had responsibility for the northeast third
of Bosnia-Herzegovina. SFOR headquarters
was a NATO force in Sarajevo. Our primary base became Eagle
Base south of Tuzla. Our Task
Force leadership came mainly from the National Guard in Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan. Ours
was just one of three major efforts involving the 38th Infantry
Division and Indiana National Guard in 2004-5.
Other 38th Infantry Division troops, mainly from Ohio units, would train and then deploy to Kosovo
as part of the KFOR effort there. Indiana’s 76th Infantry Brigade was
in training and would deploy to Afghanistan.
Those called up for Bosnia trained throughout 2003. We mobilized on 2 January 2004, trained at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, and then crossed the pond in February for further training at Hohenfels, Germany.
There our training included specially built “towns”
populated with German civilian actors.
There we honed our skills at negotiation, crowd control, patrolling and
even dealing with reporters. It was as
close as possible to situations, organizations and people we would encounter in
Army certified us as ready and we entered Bosnia in March of 2004.
soldiers had been in Bosnia
several years earlier as part of other SFOR deployments. During one of his visits, MG Umbarger, Indiana’s
Adjutant General, mentioned that from Sept
11, 2001 to that summer day in 2004 over 8,000 of Indiana’s
12,000 Guard soldiers had been deployed.
Our service to country did not stop there. Indiana’s 76th Brigade
deployed the entire Brigade to Iraq in 2008, Indiana Medical, MP and Aviation
units have deployed to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan and headquarter elements of
the 38th Combat Aviation Brigade and 38th Infantry
Division are deploying to combat zones before the end of 2009. Last year Indiana
had the highest percentage of National Guard soldiers deployed of any State in
SFOR 15, our main military units were American, Polish, Turkish and
Portuguese. Though most of our American
soldiers were from Indiana National Guard Infantry units, we were a
full-spectrum force with many specialties and from many States in the Union. Many
Army units have had the honor of service and leadership in our sector. Initially the U.S. units were in division strength. They did their job so well, and the Bosnian
effort was so effective, that our U.S. troop needs diminished over the years as
the Bosnians assumed more and more of the peacekeeping and security roles. Our predecessors were members of the 34th
Infantry Division (Red Bulls), another National Guard unit. I saw this rich history every time I did
services at the base Chapel, because their
unit crests were embedded in the chapel floor.
Base was once a major Yugoslav air base for MIG and Sukhoi
fighter planes. It was our main base in
MNB-N. Earlier SFOR rotations had a
number of major bases, including Camp
Comanche and Camp
McGovern as well as many smaller
camps. With the draw-down of U.S.
troops, many of these bases were closed and turned over to the Bosnians. By the time we arrived we were down to Eagle
Base and two company-size camps, Camp
Morgan and Camp
Clark. Though these had fewer comforts, the soldiers
liked them because they didn’t get so many visits from the
I found that one of the benefits
of being a peacekeeper was that I had an opportunity to learn of other cultures
and see parts of God’s creation I would otherwise have missed. I love the
country. It’s as though God, after
spreading beauty over the planet, still had one sack left and emptied it here.
If you took the finest natural parks in America
and packed them into the State of Indiana,
you would have Bosnia
– Herzegovina. Click here
for a fuller description.
shows more progress toward recovery than I saw in Kosovo. In the three hour drive from Skopje
to Pristina, Kosovo through the mountain passes there
were few restaurants, inns or shops.
Here, going through the passes on the way to Sarajevo
we drive by a series of “Scenic Overlook” Restaurants. Lambs turn on open flame spits powered by
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