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Fort Bragg soldiers prepare to deploy to Kosovo

Over the past dozen years of war, Fort Bragg soldiers have had a near constant presence overseas.

But when soldiers with the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade deploy later this year, they will take on a much different mission than they first expected.

Several hundred soldiers with the brigade headquarters and 1st Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, will deploy this spring to Kosovo, officials said.

The Kosovo mission is one that has been largely forgotten by the public, overshadowed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and maintained by National Guard and Army Reserve troops.

When the 525th deploys to take command of Multi-National Battle Group East, it's believed it will be the first active Army unit to hold that post in roughly a decade.

"It's been managed largely by our Guard and Reserve forces, who've done an amazing job," said Col. Xavier Brunson, the 525th commander.

Brunson, a Fayetteville native, will not deploy with the brigade. He will turn over the 525th to Col. Dave Woods at a ceremony in March.

But he has overseen training for the deployment and said Kosovo will present challenges for the brigade, which originally was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, where two of the brigade's battalions -- the 319th and 519th military intelligence battalions -- are serving.

"It takes a new mindset," he said.

Firefights, while not uncommon in Afghanistan, are expected to be virtually nonexistent in Kosovo, Brunson said. Instead, his soldiers will work with local officials to help ensure freedom of movement between ethnic enclaves.

"How can we help them?" Brunson said. "We might not be the doers. We might be the informers. . We want to make sure that it's safe and secure and that we can let people get to where they need to go."

Kosovo is a relatively new nation in the Balkan Peninsula of eastern Europe, north of Greece. It declared independence on Feb. 17, 2008.

The U.S. presence in the country dates to the late 1990s, when NATO forces and other partner nations deployed as a peacekeeping force to ease tensions between Kosovo and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

At one point, outside forces in Kosovo numbered 50,000, officials said. Now, they number about 5,600.

Brunson, who deployed to Kosovo in the late 1990s, said a lot has changed in the past decade.

He saw that earlier this year, when he visited the country to help prepare his soldiers for the deployment.

Brunson said he was preparing to leave a NATO base with other officials and wore his helmet and body armor to the vehicle. The other officials told him the armor wasn't needed.

"It has changed a lot," Brunson said, remarking on the business being conducted right outside the major NATO base near Pristina. "I remember sometimes that if you didn't get back before dark, you were in trouble."

But now, "the conflict is not apparent," Brunson said. "People are getting about their lives."

Another change, Brunson said, is the cooperation between countries.

When the 525th arrives, it will work alongside soldiers from Armenia, Germany, Morocco, Poland, Turkey and Ukraine.

Back in 1999, when Brunson served in Kosovo, many of those same nations were represented there, but there was little overlap.

"Every force was an island," Brunson said. "Everything's global now."

The deployment, set for this spring, will last about nine months, Brunson said. The soldiers will be split among the Kosovo capital of Pristina, a smaller outpost north of the capital and smaller outposts. Their area of operations will be roughly the size of Rhode Island, officials said.

Other assets will fall under the 525th, including an aviation unit from the Utah National Guard and a task force of medical units.

The soldiers will replace the 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, a South Carolina National Guard unit based in Charleston. Brunson said the 218th leadership has been helpful in the brigade's training.

"They have the institutional knowledge," he said.

While the brigade's experience in Afghanistan and Iraq will be a plus, Brunson said, it approached the training with a focus on building intrapersonal skills.

Brunson said 525th soldiers went to mock job interviews to help learn how to communicate and visited agencies, such as the Spring Lake Fire Department, to learn how to serve as liaisons, mentors and trainers to Kosovo communities.

A rigorous academic training program has brought the soldiers up to date on the region's sometimes tumultuous history, cultural norms and techniques the soldiers may have to employ.

"We had to learn and understand crowd control and riot control," Brunson. "And we want them to be able to communicate clearly."

Brunson said many of his soldiers could not find Kosovo on a map when they were told of the mission, but they have since embraced the deployment.

"There was a minute of 'What?' " Brunson said. "Now, it's 'Let's get about it.' "

"Young kids really take to this mission because it's something different," he said. "They want to do well. It's certainly different."

Brunson said that after the Super Bowl, he found a group of soldiers discussing not the big game but the gross domestic product of Kosovo.

"It's something few have done," he said. "There's nothing like seeing a young soldier get excited about a mission."

And the skills they learn in Kosovo will be invaluable in the new, postwar realities of the military after Iraq and Afghanistan, Brunson said.

"It provides us an opportunity to add to our portfolio, if you will," Brunson said.

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