Kosovo staff work to make VIPs' trips seamless
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo — Army Pfc. Joshua White should be driving trucks in Kitzingen, Germany.
Instead he has become a chauffeur for American dignitaries and top brass who visit Camp Bondsteel and Task Force Falcon in Kosovo.
In the past two months, he has driven U.S. European Command commander Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack Tilley.
And he has accumulated 10 commander’s coins.
“I’m going to get the ones from the chief of staff and Army sergeant major framed with a little plaque,” the 19-year-old White said.
White is one of 20 soldiers who staff the Task Force Falcon Joint Visitors Bureau. They are from four different units within the 1st Infantry Division in Germany and were pulled from various backgrounds and given the task of caring for the VIPs.
“It’s not a typical job,” said Army Maj. Eric Zeeman, chief of the Joint Visitors Bureau. “And we don’t have typical soldiers.”
Zeeman said the goal for his crew is simple. He wants the people who visit the Multi National Brigade East, the sector of Kosovo where about 3,000 U.S. soldiers work as peacekeepers, “to leave MNBE with a positive impression and a seamless trip.”
The time around Christmas was likely the period with the most visits, Zeeman said, with top dogs such as Shinseki and Tilley visiting, but the pace is expected to remain steady.
Most of the earlier visitors were doing the Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Kuwait, Turkey and Afghanistan tour, the soldiers said, but now the officers coming through will have more defined purpose.
Zeeman said upcoming visitors will be more interested in operations and how they are going rather than primarily in troop welfare.
He said his team handles about 25 visits a month. Among those expected this week is one by U.S. Marine Sgt. Maj. John Mersino, sergeant major for the U.S. European Command.
For Army Sgt. Craig Sanford, an infantryman based in Vilseck, Germany, the assignment has been a great break.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had. … I don’t want to go back,” said Sanford, who works security for the visitors. “We saw six generals in seven days.”
Most surprising, Sanford said, is how approachable the generals have been.
He recalled that during a visit from Ralston, the EUCOM commander stopped by the Joint Visitors Bureau office and talked about his favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Sanford said he knows he probably will have to return again to Kosovo, but he doubts he’ll have the same job. “I know when I come back I’ll be going out on patrols or pulling guard duty. … This is much better,” he said.
The training before getting the assignments from the protocol officer was minimal. Soldiers were told such basics as how many paces away from a visitor they should remain, not to start conversations and to always salute, Sanford and White said.
“I basically try not to hit potholes as I drive,” White said. “That can be hard in Kosovo.”
Sgt. 1st Class Martisha Briggs, the non-commissioned officer in charge, likes the change her assignment brings.
She usually takes care of 160 vehicles back in Germany. “Trucking business is manual labor. This is more personal and you deal with people. It’s nice,” she said.
One of her tasks, Briggs said, is ensuring the 10 rooms at the Task Force Falcon “hotel” — which is in the same building as the Joint Visitors Bureau — are up to par.
Ordinarily Staff Sgt. Donyeal Cunningham teaches soldiers how to drive trucks, but now he is an escort officer.
“A perfect day is when everything runs smoothly. Everyone knows where they should be,” Cunningham said.
But there was one day that, although it wasn’t a disaster, is a day most people in the Joint Visitors Bureau say they would rather forget.
The group had been mobilized and prepared for a general who was arriving at the military airport in Pristina. Soldiers from the visitors bureau were in the tower waiting for him to arrive when they suddenly learned the general wasn’t landing in Pristina but in Skopje, Macedonia, a two-hour drive away.
“That’s not something you like to hear when you are waiting for a general, that you are at the wrong airport,” Cunningham said.
But Cunningham had prepared for the contingency. Other soldiers in Macedonia met the general and took care of him until Cunningham arrived. The visit went without a hitch.