CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo About a dozen North Dakota Army National Guard Soldiers currently deployed here are having a reunion of sorts 10 years after they were first sent to this part of the world to build roads, fortifications and military housing.
Today, they are NATO peacekeepers, here as part of the N.D. contingent that makes up Kosovo Forces 12 of Multi-National Battle Group-East. In 1999-2000, they also were in Kosovo, as Bravo Company and Headquarters Support Company, 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion, of Wahpeton, and Fargo, respectively, embarking on a very different mission.
In 2000, Capt. Shane Clennon, West Fargo, led a "Horizontal Platoon," comprised of equipment operators who constructed roads, dug trenches and performed various other "dirt work" on construction sites.
Submitted Photo --
Members of Bravo Company and Headquarters Support Company, 142nd Engineers Combat Battalion who were deployed to Kosovo in 2000 stand for a reunion photos recently at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, a camp they helped construct. They are (left to right) Sgt. James L. Dammen, Bismarck; Sgt. 1st Class Lori D. Johnson-Chambers, Moorhead, Minn.; Staff Sgt. John W. Seedorf, Bismarck; Capt. Mark L. Topp, Fargo; Sgt. 1st Class Seth Mankowski, Horace; Staff Sgt. Jerald L. Qualley, Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Staff Sgt. Eric B. Hetland, Bismarck.; Capt. Jim E. Lindeman, Fargo; Sgt. Jerry L. Schmidt, Rothsay, Minn.; Maj. Jim R. Olson, West Fargo; Master Sgt. Scott J. Brewer, Dilworth, Minn.; Spc. Jessie J. Schuler, Wahpeton; Capt. Shane P. Clennon, West Fargo; and Sgt. 1st Class Dale L. Seibel, Fargo.
Some of their projects have become a part of the local landscape, still used today. While others, such as military tank trails and fighting positions have disappeared, as safety and security returns in Kosovo.
"We constructed Camp Bondsteel's perimeter road, the main ring road that goes around the city of Gnjilane(Gjilan), Kosovo, bypasses on another main highway called "Route Hawk" and many other projects around Kosovo," Clennon said.
Two more bypasses, designed at the time to be secondary roads, in case bridges and tunnel were destroyed, were constructed by Clennon's platoon south of Kacanik, Kosovo. These were the kinds of missions that U.S. soldiers undertook in the early days of NATO's peacekeeping operations in Kosovo.
Clennon explained the Gnjilane/Gjilan ring road was intended to be a bypass for Humvees to reach Camp Montieth, a former military camp that has since been turned over to institutions in Kosovo. The bypass allowed the military to avoid traveling on the busy, narrow streets of Gnjilane/Gjilan and its more than 120,000 residents. d
"It took us three weeks to complete the road after we took the mission over from Navy Seabees," Clennon said. "There was just a field here back then, now it has homes and businesses on both sides and it has been paved."
Maj. Jim Olson, West Fargo, currently an operations officer with Multi-National Battle Group-East, was a lieutenant in 2000 in charge of the "Vertical Platoon." The platoon had carpenters and masons capable of building structures needed in the early stages of the mission.
"On our first deployment, our platoon completed several construction missions of varying complexity," Olson said. "We were involved in a lot of Southeast Asia hut construction, completing interior work on multiple facilities, construction of bunkers and concrete work around Kosovo."
The Southeast Asia huts built by Olson's platoon are the same structures that he and the rest of his fellow Multi-National Battle Group-East soldiers still use today on Camp Bondsteel.
When the N.D. engineers were first in Kosovo, the Kosovo Force mission was active Army-led, first undertaken by the 1st Infantry Division followed by the 82nd Airborne Division. Those units alternated during four six-month rotations that spanned 1999 to 2001.
The active Army passed the Kosovo Force mission to National Guard units in late 2002.
The mobilization process was a bit more fast-paced back then compared to the process that's in place now. It's changed over the years to allow soldiers and families more notification of and preparation for a mission.
Staff Sgt. Jerald Qualley, Detroit Lakes, Minn., said, once he was alerted, he spent about a month getting all his gear ready.
"We then shipped to Fort Benning, Ga., and spent about a week there training on individual tasks," Qualley said. "Next, we were shipped to Camp Able Sentry in the former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia."
Qualley and Master Sgt. Scott Brewer, Dilworth, Minn., both served as surveyors during their deployment, helping plan projects and monitoring the quality of the work.
Clennon said certain locations near the Administrative Boundary Line, where he now has meetings with Serbian military officials, are the same spots where his platoon prepared trails and positions for tanks and other equipment 10 years ago.
Spc. Jessie Schuler, Wahpeton, was a supply specialist his first time in Kosovo, and today, he's back again in the same role.
"My duties now are almost the same," he said. "I am still ordering supplies but this time, it's a lot more office supplies."
Then, there are those little doses of familiarity that sometimes crop up after returning to place that was once "home," according to Staff Sgt. Eric Hetland, Bismarck.
"I currently live in the SEA (Southeast Asia) hut right next door to the one that I called home 10 years ago, he said. "I find the long-shot coincidence of that actually happening at least a little entertaining."
As when they first arrived in 2000, these dozen or so soldiers have returned during another defining moment in the Kosovo mission.
At the height of the operation, NATO forces in Kosovo totaled around 50,000. As the security situation in Kosovo improved and the capability of the police increased, the number of Kosovo Force soldiers has been continually adjusted.
On Feb. 1, Kosovo Force leaders unveiled their newest force structure, designed to be more mobile, flexible and agile, with 10,000 soldiers.
"We were here right at the beginning of KFOR's involvement in the region, and now we are here during a major transition in our role," Olson said. "It's a very interesting contrast as far as what our concerns were for the region then and what the outlook appears to be for the future."
The most significant difference for most of the returning soldiers is more interactions with the local people this time around. Due to security concerns, most soldiers were not able to get out and talk to the people in Kosovo during their previous mission.
Ten years ago, as an enlisted soldier, in the Vertical Platoon, Capt. Mark Topp, Jamestown, built protective bunkers and military offices. Now, as civil military operations officer with Multi-National Battle Group-East, he is building relationships with local municipalities and schools by facilitating infrastructure improvements.
"I enjoy this deployment much more because of the involvement with local nationals," Topp said. "I have the opportunity to work in communities and see more of the culture, while making a difference for people in Kosovo."