Thirty-seven nations dog-piled into the mosh-pit wanna-be nation of Kosovo. Each army arriving to drive a wedge between Serbian and Albanian forces and stop genocidal activities. The world had finally grown sick of witnessing this never-ending tragedy unfold. Each contributing force was present to ensure peace cooperatively. Each acting with the legitimacy of a United Nations Security Council Resolution. I wasn’t particularly excited about this non-combat deployment. It wouldn’t yield another right-shoulder patch and the big shows were still raging in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was just some side show in my eyes. Our job was to lay low and keep it out of the news. It’s been a quiet place for a couple of years and we were just supposed to keep it that way. We knew our role. As we bounced through Heidelberg and Hohenfels on our way to Pristina this had all been clearly spelled out to us.
As the head of personnel, or G1 as the army labeling system goes, my staff handled all the human resource administrative requirements for a multi-national force which included US, Hellas, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Estonian and Lithuanian troops. We task organized into battalions who functioned on the ground as Liaison Monitoring Teams (LMTs). They would roam around our section of the country ensuring all parties maintained harmony and worked in compliance with the imposed peace accord. We affectionately altered their acronym to stand for Lazy Macchiato Teams (LMTs) because of their strategy of maintaining relationships through intimate dialogue in village coffee shops. Their strategy worked. The name stuck anyway.
We arrived in theater after completing a long slow pre-mobilization train up and education program. In Texas, our six month stint on Fort Hood during the blazing hot summer months didn’t quite climatize us for the harsh winters of the Balkans. In Kosovo, we counted the number of times we slipped and fell. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if you fell’ but ‘when’ and ‘how often’. If you can imagine a two-hundred acre hilly ice skating rink, then you pretty much get the idea. In fact, the outgoing commander was wearing a back and neck brace when we arrived from a spill he had taken weeks before right outside of his hut. In contrast, back in Texas, we counted the number heat injuries and kept track of the enormous amount of ice we required. Ice in August on North Forth Hood is more precious than gold.
Kosovo was still petitioning for statehood. Therefore they had no formal military. Nevertheless, I was honored to be invited to conduct a professional development course on the topic of ‘US Army officer career development and assignment processes to their pseudo militia leadership. Any excuse to get me off camp made me a fan. Outside the fence-line beat inside the fence line every time.
The chosen subject of Personnel Management is a topic of which I was most familiar. But, in hind-sight I may have been slightly over-confident in my lesson outline. I created beautiful slides with to-the-point bullets. I had my interpreter create duplicate slides in Albanian. I ignored all the lessons I’d been taught about: ‘don’t inject humor when using a translator’. As soon as I felt adequately prepared we rolled out smartly to conduct class. I was eager. I wasn’t the least bit nervous.
We drove through the narrow streets and through the winding countryside. As we pulled passed the guards and through the chain-linked entrance gate, I noticed it was encircled by concertina-wire. I also took notice of the partially melted and then re-frozen smog soaked snow piles. It didn’t have a very inviting feel to it. As we pulled into our designated parking spot I was a little intimidated by the gothic concrete building with its large arched doors. Ravens were integrated onto the concrete walls and they reminded me this was definitely the Eastern Block of the world. I carefully stepped through the parking lot avoiding ice puddles and sludge along the way and watching my breath as it hung in the air like a thick cloud of frost on every exhale. I was careful not to get mud on my boots. I wanted to look sharp and crisp for my presentation. A good impression is a sure sign of a quality instructor, I thought to myself. Plus, I couldn’t wait to get inside to warm up. I was missing some good ole Texas heat.
As we stepped inside it became immediately apparent that the ‘no-smoking’ rules of the US hadn’t reached this far. Also, I guessed that ‘warmth’ must be something that ‘makes men weak’, as the temperature inside hovered just above freezing as well. Even though the US Army had seen fit to issue me the best long silk underwear in existence, I had chosen not to wear it. You see, I didn’t want to look sweaty and nervous to these war hardened gentlemen. I was beginning to doubt my judgment.
We moved down the halls of this dungeon like academy and into my classroom. The uniformed men were already planted. No one budged or straightened up or called the room to attention or said hello or did any of the things that might make me believe they actually ‘wanted’ me there. Unfortunately for me, these were the roughest looking men I’d ever seen in uniform. Serious, does not begin to describe their facial expression. Each and every one drew their cigarette from a dirty meaty hand. ‘Oh boy’, my classroom was cold, dark and full of smoke. Also, each man was studying me, sizing me up, as though he were counting the number of ways he could kill me. I hoped my outward composure did not reveal my inner insecurity. This was going to be fun. “It’ll be fine”, I told myself. “They’ll laugh at your first joke, the mood will lighten and then you’ll have them eating out of your hand.”
My translator opened. He introduced both the topic and me. There were no applause. I didn’t even see a single expression change, nor any shift in their steady tempo of inhaling and puffing tobacco. Well, awesome, I like a challenge. Here it goes, I launched an opening joke. I paused to let my translator do his thing. I waited for the roar of laughter: there was none. I gulped. Okay, joke telling, not a good idea. I guess I should have paid attention to that lesson. For once, my mobilization training was on the mark. “Get into the content, don’t look phased, you’ve got this”, rang in my head.
Shivering from the cold, teeth chattering, I didn’t feel as though I was commanding the room as I’d hoped. I dove into content. I began talking about the skills, knowledge and attributes that make a good leader. A hand was raised. Wow, alright I thought, at least they’re listening and caring. My translator turned to me. He wants to know “why you no count number of killings to make rank?””True system measure war deeds.”
Standing there stunned, I pondered a response. Immediately, in my mind, I was just a young cadet again who was listening to an old sergeant. In my memory, the credit goes to a Vietnam Vet Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO). Unknowingly he had provided me all I ever needed to be successful in this situation. It was almost twenty-years before, 1985, he asked us; “cadets, what’s the first thing you do when you get shot?” We all responded with answers like “stop the bleeding” and “point toward the position of the shooter”. The master sergeant came unglued. “No!” he said. “You panic, that’s the natural human response to being shot.” “It’s what you do after you panic that matters.” “I was shot in the arm over in Nam and it felt like a giant monster had come along with a long two-by-four and swung it and hit me with all his might.” “The force of the bullet was so great, I was picked up and spun completely around and thrown on my back in the mud.” “My squad was on me before I even knew what was happening.” “They were wrapping the wound and all telling me it wasn’t that bad.” “BS, I thought. I didn’t believe’m”. “I couldn’t make myself turn my head to look at my wound.” “I was convinced my arm was gone.” “I was positive.” “I was convinced if I looked, all I would see would be a bloody stump.” “So my men had to physically grab my head and turn it to make me see it.” “Sure enough it wasn’t that bad, but it took me a good five minutes to calm down, to get my act together, and to regain my composure.” “The lesson here cadets is, don’t be ashamed when you panic”. “Don’t freak out just because you lost your mind for a moment.” “It’s your actions following the initial panic that matter, understood?”
Well I hadn’t been shot in this lecture, at least not yet. It only took a few seconds for the memory above to race through my brain. I gave thanks to that NCO, as I believed his lesson had been told to me for this very moment. Realizing that I never really owned any credibility as a true soldier in the eyes of this class from the start, I had to act. So as I stood there shaking like a leaf, talking about how we used quantifiable, objective criteria to select and assign officers, I knew it wasn’t just me losing credibility, it was the whole American Army. These were men who had survived the worst of times. They weren’t interested at all listening to some clean, comfort seeking, power point soldier. It was time to turn on some ABA (American Bad Ass). I hadn’t been shot in the arm. There’s no real threat here. This should be easy. “Get your sh-t together right now” I told myself. “Okay”, I answered, “great question.” “You see, in the US Army, all officers are presumed to be flat bellied steely eyed killers.” “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have commissioned them in the first place.” Yes, I was stretching it, and being theatrical. I continued, “but, we have an enormous force. We’re spread all over the globe from here to Korea and all corners of the planet.” “In order to determine assignment and promotion, we rely on their commanders to provide written annual performance appraisals.” “Then we funnel them all to the Pentagon in Washington DC. Generals with no personal knowledge of these officers rack and stack them.” “Someday, I hope your army can be as professional as ours.” “Until then, I understand why you must rely on these sophomoric methods.” “Does that answer your question?” He nodded. He even had a slight grin of acknowledgment. I’ll take that as victory today, I said to myself. No further questions were asked. Afterward, we adjourned to the “cafeteria” in the basement for even thicker cigarette smoke and espresso. I seemed to have earned at least a sliver of respect, as the coffee and cigarettes were complimentary. At last, something to warm my bones.
Throughout my year in Kosovo, not one rocket hit the ground and not one soldier was lost due to enemy contact. So, if I have any Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it certainly can’t be attributed to enemy action there. But, we all sacrificed. We exchanged eight-teen months of our lives for the betterment of this part of the world. My team handled many divorces, deaths of loved ones back home, and the general strain and agony experienced between families as they attempt to live quasi normal lives disconnected by thousands of miles.
For me personally, this was a great year. I’d finally witness for the first time the birth of one of my children. I was in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War and had missed the birth of my son. I decoded the radio message inside the back of a five-ton announcing his birth. That was pretty awesome too. In Kosovo fortunately, we were all allowed two-weeks R&R. I purposefully scheduled mine to coincide with the due date of our daughter. Being present for her birth was the most beautiful experience of my life. Two days later I was back on a plane to Germany and then onward via cargo flight to Kosovo. It would be several more months before I’d look into my child’s eyes again.
We’d leave Kosovo having failed to achieve their full independence. It was a somewhat hollow departure for us. We had been prepped to be the last team on the ground and thought we’d bear witness to this country’s birth. We felt a little shafted, and so did many of our Kosovar friends. But about a decade later, Majlinda Kelmendi would achieve greatness as she took home the first Gold Medal for Kosovo in the Olympics. The news brought back all my forgotten feelings from 2006. A lot of colleagues whom I hadn’t spoken to in years popped up on social media to share this tremendous news. We all felt we had been provided a kind of closure by her win. Her victory was an emotional medicine shared by those of us who had served there. Her win finally validated the measure and the sacrifice we had made. Thank you Majlinda for giving us a victory as well.