It’s not easy for any American to see their countrymen risking their lives every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But thousands of National Guardsmen serving in the Balkans might have a little different perspective than most. If different orders had been sent out from the Pentagon, they could be in the desert themselves. Instead, they’re serving in places such as Bosnia and Kosovo, where soldiers don’t get blown up or shot on a daily basis.

“Do they want us here?” asks Cpl. Neil Garvey, a member of Company A from the 2nd Battalion, 152nd Infantry Regiment serving in Bosnia. “Most of them do.”

That’s the general consensus of soldiers in Kosovo as well.

“You hope you’re making a difference by being here,” says Sgt. Klee Smith, a 42-year-old from Owatonna, Minn. “Some days you think you do, and some days you think you don’t. But I believe in what we’re doing here. I believe if we left, it would be a bad deal.”

“I don’t think it’s any less degrading being here than being in Iraq,” says Staff Sgt. Casey Bultman, leading a patrol of fellow members of the Iowa National Guard through villages around Gnjilane, Kosovo. “Your heart goes out to the soldiers in Iraq. You wish you could do more for them. But we’re here for a reason, too. You can’t put that aside.

“I suppose the soldiers in Iraq would rather be here, though.”

Still, from time to time, soldiers say they’d rather be there.

“As an infantryman ... I often think my soul is in Iraq,” says Capt. Jimmy Coats, who commands Company A from the 2-152 in Bosnia.

Garvey says there are aspects about the mission in Iraq — taking on opposing forces in close combat — that are natural challenges for soldiers.

“In a way, it’s an infantryman’s dream,” he says. “That’s what we’re trained to do.”

Of course, there are other aspects that aren’t as appealing.

“I don’t think anyone wants to get shot at,” says Staff Sgt. Samuel Wyatt. “But if you raise your hand, it’s a chance you take.”

Wyatt, like others interviewed, says he’d be willing to serve in Iraq if he was called.

“If they told me today, ‘You’re headed to Iraq,’ I’d do the best job I could,” he says.

Brig. Gen. Rick Erlandson, who commands American troops in Multinational Brigade-East in Kosovo, says the troops are needed where they are.

“Every soldier has their place, and ours is here in Kosovo,” he says.

And even those who think most often about serving in Iraq only have to look a little closer at their surroundings in the Balkans — and see what it was like before American and allied troops entered the region.

“You really don’t get a good feel for what went on until you go places and see the bullet holes,” Coats says, describing a visit to a building where a massacre took place in Bosnia. “You can just picture what went on.”

Still, that doesn’t mean that many serving in the Balkans don’t think of their comrades in southwest Asia.

“Are soldiers in Iraq going to be reading this?” asked one sergeant first class. “You tell them that we’re always thinking about them.”

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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