CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo –
The nearly year-long peacekeeping mission in Kosovo for more than 400 Virginia National Guard Soldiers came to an official end Nov. 2 with the transfer of authority ceremony held at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo. The traditional exchange of guidons between Brig. Gen. Douglas Earhart of the 29th Infantry Division and Brig. Gen. John Davoren of the 35th Infantry Division marked the end of the KFOR 8 rotation that began Dec. 6, 2006.
Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers filled a number of different roles during the deployment. Soldiers from the 29th Infantry Division Headquarters provided command and control for the Kosovo Force’s Multi-National Task Force (East), Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment made up most of Task Force Red Dragon and Soldiers from all over Virginia joined together to form the special Liaison Monitoring Team Company. Soldiers from the Maryland National Guard also contributed a number of Soldiers to the division headquarters.
Task Force Red Dragon was one of two maneuver task forces that conducted regular patrols, vehicle checkpoints and humanitarian assistance activities. The LMTs served as the eyes and ears of the task force commander, keeping a pulse on the mood of the local population and working with local government to help improve quality of life for all the people of Kosovo.
The Serbian province of Kosovo has been under the administration of the United Nations since 1999, and the UN provides a peacekeeping force of approximately 16,000 Soldiers to help maintain security and freedom of movement for all citizens of the province. The United States is the lead nation for MNTF(E), one of five multi-national brigades serving in the Kosovo Force, which also has units from Armenia, Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Ukraine. The division headquarters, often referred to as Task Force Falcon, provided command and control for approximately 2,500 Soldiers.
In addition to the primary security mission, the task force staff also planned and executed an aggressive humanitarian assistance program to help improve quality of life for all citizens. The task force also conducted information operations designed to influence the population to be patient during the Kosovo final status process and reject violent activities as a solution to the issues they are facing.
During the rotation, Soldiers in the task force conducted a total of 21 medical civil affairs programs (MEDCAPs). MEDCAPs consisted of basic health screenings, to include dental and optometry services.
Over the course of the 21 MEDCAPs, more than 3,000 Kosovo citizens from all ethnic groups received medical screenings and assistance.
“In addition to meeting specific needs of our local communities, our humanitarian assistance efforts also helped us build a sense of trust with the population,” said Col. Steve Scott, the MNTF(E) deputy commander for civil military operations. “That trust we built would have paid huge dividends if we ever had to contend with a crisis situation.”
In his closing remarks at the transfer of authority ceremony, Earhart reflected on his 11 months in command and explained that the unit contributed nearly $1,000,000 dollars in quality of life improvements for the people of Kosovo.
“That is something that will make a significant impact for years to come,” Earhart said. “Because of our efforts, there is a new level of trust for the institutions in Kosovo and as the status process continues to run its course, we have helped make sure that the people of Kosovo continue to remain patient and give the status process time to work.”
Earhart said that he is often asked by the news media about the security status in his area of operations. “The security status in our area is good, because the people want it to be that way,” he replied. “The Soldiers of KFOR can provide a stable influence on the security situation, but Kosovo is more stable and secure today because that is what the people want it to be.”
The task force information operations section influenced the population through contracted television and radio programming as well as through the production of magazines, billboards and handbills. The section produced 12 episodes of a TV Show called “Kosovo Now”, produced 360,000 “Junior” magazines for distribution to young people throughout MNTF(E) area of operations, conducted more than 750 hours of contract media radio shows and almost 100 hours of contract media television shows.
The contract radio shows were hosted by Soldiers from throughout the task force and were in a “music and message” format. Soldiers would play their favorite music and between songs they would convey messages stressing themes like patience, tolerance and rejecting violence.
Task Force Red Dragon
Task Force Red Dragon consisted of the Headquarters Company from Lynchburg, B Company from Lexington, C Company from Christiansburg and A Company of the 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry from Agawam, Mass. Red Dragon Soldiers conducted nearly 6,200 patrols, more than 650 vehicle check points and more than 1,000 sphere of influence engagements. Red Dragon.
Lt. Col. Lapthe Flora, the commander of Task Force Red Dragon, saw the best way to accomplish their security mission was develop a close working partnership with local law enforcement, the Kosovo Police Service. He also knew that it was important to demonstrate to both the majority Kosovo Albanian community and minority Kosovo Serbian community that violence and intimidation would not be tolerated.
Early in the rotation, Flora went to the regional KPS office and saw a chart that outlined the organization of the KPS in the area. Flora told the KPS chief that he should have a dotted line that pointed to Camp Bondsteel to show his commitment to working in partnership with the KPS to ensure security in the area.
Red Dragon Soldiers were responsible for the Viti/Vitina municipality with a population of about 65,000. Of that population, 90 percent are Kosovo Albanian and about 8 percent are Kosovo Serbian. The last serious outbreak of violence in Kosovo occurred in March 2004, and the memories of ethnic intimidation during the riots are still vivid in the minds of the Serbian minority community.
“We wanted to give the minority community a sense of security,” Flora said. “We did that not by talking, but by demonstrating our commitment. We listened to the concerns of the minority community and responded to them.”
Each day Red Dragon Soldiers were out in the community conducting focused patrols, each with a specific task and purpose in terms of who the Soldiers were to engage and what result was expected as a result of the patrol. After finishing their focused patrol, Soldiers would often conduct vehicle checkpoint (VCP) operations where they would be on the lookout for “bad guys” identified by the KPS. As a result of Red Dragon VCPs, 16 individuals on the KPS “most wanted” list were taken off the streets, Flora said.
In addition to daily patrols and frequent VCPs, Red Dragon also conducted several capabilities demonstrations where a reaction force was deployed by helicopter to simulate securing a Serbian Orthodox church. During the March 2004 riots, many churches were subject to vandalism, so showing KFOR commitment to protecting those churches sent a powerful message to both the minority and majority communities, Flora said.
“The majority community respects KFOR,” Flora said. “If they see the minority community being protected, it sends a strong message to them. We came here to win the hearts and minds of the people of Kosovo, and we did that in a very big way.”
Liaison Monitoring Team Company
The LMT company is an organization unique to Kosovo. After the March 2004 riots, the senior leaders of KFOR realized there was a need to maintain a higher degree of situation awareness in the local communities. LMT organizations were formed and given the specific mission of keeping a pulse on the mood and concerns of the population, as well as working closely with local government leaders.
The approximately 90 Soldiers of the LMT company were selected from all over Virginia, and they received specialized training during the mobilization process to help prepare them for their unique mission in Kosovo. During the rotation, LMT Soldiers drove more than 523,000 kilometers, conducted more than 43,500 interviews, visited more than 500 villages and attended nearly 1,900 meetings. All of these engagements were designed to hear the concerns of the population and help them develop strategies for finding their own solutions to the problems they faced.
“Just like the name says, our job is to liaison with and monitor the local community in order to gain overt information which would provide an early warning to threats to the safe and secure environment,” said 1st Lt. Jay Greeley, the officer in charge of the LMTs in the municipality of Gnjilane/Gjilane. “LMTs are able to detect threats by building relationships in the local population and watching their activities.”
LMTs had to work at teaching citizens to solve their own problems. “The local population often turns to the LMT as a problem solver, the proverbial easy button, which they can bring any problem to first,” Greeley said. “Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbians approach us with problems such as crimes, land disputes, refugee issues or safety concerns, and we dealt with these by attempting to make individuals understand the resources or people they could talk to solve their own problem.”
The mobilization began for most Soldiers in late August 2006 with two months of training at Camp Atterbury, Ind. During the training and preparation for the Kosovo mission, Soldiers were often presented with the scenario for the “worst day in Kosovo” to make sure they could respond to the most difficult challenges they could face. The reality on the ground was very different from the training, said 1st Lt. Scott Drugo, the officer in charge of the LMT section based out of the municipality of Viti/Vitina.
“We trained for a more violent area and when we arrived here in Kosovo people were inviting us into their homes and offering food and drink,” he said. “Past KFOR rotations have made the U.S. Soldier a hero and we took it one step further and I am sure KFOR 9 will do the same. We have made friends with families and individuals, and I do believe if I come back to the Vitina area I will have no problem finding a friend I have made while on this deployment and be welcome into their home as part of the family.”
“I think the most important factor for our success was our ability to effectively communicate to both ethnicities to remain patient during the final status discussions,” Greeley said. “Our Soldiers influenced village leaders, police officers, priests, teachers, and displaced persons that KFOR was there to provide a safe and secure environment in an unbiased manner.