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NEWS | Feb. 27, 2007

Virginia National Guard Soldiers stand ready in Kosovo

By Maj. Cotton Puryear | 29th Infantry Division

As the political leaders and diplomats debate the final status of the Serbian province of Kosovo, National Guard Soldiers from across the country stand ready to help maintain a safe and secure environment in the troubled region.

The United States is the lead nation for the Kosovo Force’s Multi-National Task Force (East), which also has units from Armenia, Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Ukraine. MNTF(E) operates under the flag of the Army National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division, headquartered in Fort Belvoir, Va., and is commanded by Brig. Gen. Douglas Earhart.

The United States contingent of MNTF(E) is made up of approximately 1,500 personnel. The National Guard of Virginia and Massachusetts provide almost two thirds of those Soldiers, while other National Guard Soldiers from 28 different states and Puerto Rico provide personnel, as well as Soldiers and Airmen from the U.S. Army Reserve and active Army.

The U.S contingent of the task force is made up of an infantry battalion task force, a cavalry squadron task force, an aviation battalion task force, a military police battalion task force, and also has public affairs, medical support, explosive ordnance disposal, civil affairs, and military intelligence elements.

Kosovo has been under the protection and administration of the United Nations since 1999 after a NATO bombing campaign halted a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in the southern province. The Kosovo Albanian majority in Kosovo wants nothing short of independence, while Serbia has vowed it will never allow for Kosovo’s secession.

Compromise talks in Vienna ended March 10 in a stalemate, so a final status plan drafted by special envoy Martti Ahtisaari will be sent to the United Nations Security Council for approval by the end of the month. If approved, the plan would set Kosovo on the path to independence.

“We are Soldiers, not politicians,” Earhart said. “Our mission here is to make sure the people of Kosovo feel safe and secure while the final status process runs its course. While the international community debates what shape the final status will take, we are doing everything we can to make sure the people maintain their patience and confidence in the process.”

Earhart said MNTF(E) has not experienced any violence in their area as a direct result of the plan put forth by Ahtisaari. On Feb. 10, there were demonstrations in Kosovo’s capitol of Pristina that turned violent, and two demonstrators were killed during the response from the United Nations Mission in Kosovo Police and the Kosovo Police Service. No MNTF(E) forces were involved in the response.

“We have had several explosions take place in our area of operations, but all indications point to the explosions being tied to intimidation by organized crime factions or infighting amongst political rivals. There is no evidence that any of the explosions were ethnically motivated or tied to a response to the Ahtisaari plan.”

Day to day operations for MNTF(E) involve sending out security patrols. Their presence shows the local population that KFOR is capable and ready in case they are needed. MNTF(E) also has specially-trained Liaison Monitoring Teams who work directly in a community with citizens and leaders to try and help them solve day to day problems they might be facing.

LMTs also give the task force commander a sense of what is happening in the communities. The LMTs are a crucial element in gauging the “mood on the ground,” and often provide the commander with early warning indicators of any civil unrest.

“All the feedback we get is pretty positive,” said 1st Lt. Scott Drugo, the leader of one of MNTF(E) LMT teams. “People that have a problem come to us, and while we can’t solve all the problems, we can help. If we help one person fix their problem, then others will be able to fix their problems. I was kind of surprised by how we were welcomed here. People are glad to see us.”

In addition to patrolling, MNTF(E) has a robust civil affairs program involved in a wide variety of humanitarian assistance projects ranging from school adoptions to medical assistance programs.

“Everywhere we go in our area of operations, we see Kosovo Serbian and Kosovo Albanians working together, living together and shopping together,” Earhart said. “We feel like the majority of people want peace, and they want to have jobs and a stronger economy. They realize that living in peace is the best way to accomplish those goals.”

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