American troops have mixed feelings about leaving Bosnia
EAGLE BASE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Collectively, U.S. soldiers have spent nine Christmases, eight Thanksgivings and Fourths of July, and thousands of birthdays and anniversaries serving as peacekeepers in Bosnia.
Since the inception of the Implementation Force — IFOR — on Dec. 20, 1995, and its transformation into the Stabilization Force — SFOR — a year later, thousands of American troops have logged time in country. Most of them have served six-month tours, with each rotation adding on a number.
So the 800 or so Americans currently serving in Bosnia are a part of SFOR-15. There might not be an SFOR-16. And soldiers have mixed opinions about that.
“I see signs the Bosnian people are taking control of their own destinies,” said Sgt. Kevin Brown, the training noncommissioned officer for Company A, 2nd Battalion, 152nd Infantry Regiment.
“I think there are enough people who have experienced peace by now that they want to keep peace. I think they’re ready.”
But that opinion isn’t shared by some of the other members of his company.
Capt. Jimmy Coats compared Bosnia to the United States in the 1920s, with criminal elements constantly maneuvering behind the scenes. He said SFOR has an inkling of who some of the players are, but “we can’t do anything unless we see it.”
He fears that if SFOR pulls out, those elements will take on a more visible, and powerful, role.
Sgt. 1st Class Rick Tarr, a veteran of Desert Storm and Desert Shield, agreed.
“The bad guys are here,” he said. “They’re just waiting for us to leave. They’re just going to take control.
“Not just the ones we know about,” he said. “But the ones we don’t know about. Whoever controls the money is going to control this country.”
Asked if the overall mission could be called finished with suspected war criminals such as former Serb leader Radovan Karadic still on the loose — despite attempts by SFOR troops to capture him — Coats had a quick and simple answer: “No.”
But even soldiers who agree with that sentiment question how long U.S. and allied troops can continue to serve in Bosnia.
“You can’t stay here forever,” said Cpl. Neil Garvey.
Brown, serving his second stint in Bosnia — the first came during SFOR-11 — said he’s seen improvements between the two stints. Besides, he added, “it seems like we’re holding their hands.”
Others say that some parts of Bosnia appear ready to move on. But other parts aren’t.
“Some areas you go to, it looks like the war ended yesterday,” said Staff Sgt. Samuel Wyatt. “Other neighborhoods you could see anywhere in Europe.”
Wyatt said many locals don’t trust their elected leaders. Most soldiers agreed that residents appear to trust those wearing American flags on their shoulders.
“They have a real fear that when we leave, things will heat up again,” Coats said.
— Ivana Avramovic contributed to this report.