12/8/2002 — U.S. Bosnia Force Now Made Up Only Of Guard, Reserve Units

By Joshua Kucera

EAGLE BASE, Bosnia — Douglas Maser, a health-care lawyer from Cleveland, runs the hospital. Char Norton, the owner of an international food service company in Houston, is head nurse. Delonce Hines, a legal clerk from Philadelphia, inspects Bosnian Army weap-ons storage sites. Raymond Hernandez, an air-conditioning technician from Philadelphia, clears minefields.

Here they are known as Col. Maser, Col. Norton, Spec. Hines and Cpl. Hernandez, and all have left jobs and families back home for a six-month stint in the international force maintaining the peace in Bosnia. When the NATO-led postwar peacekeeping mission started here in 1996, the American component was manned exclusively by regular Army forces. National Guard and Reserve troops have been slowly taking over until now, with the 12th rotation of troops, the force is 100 percent Guard and Reserve for the first time.

Guard and Reserve units have taken over similar duties in Kosovo and the Sinai Peninsula; they also patrol U.S. air space and fill in for active duty troops in Germany who are called elsewhere.

This increasing reliance on Guard and Reserve troops is too new for its effects to be fully gauged, but it is raising questions about whether part-time soldiers are likely to become more like active-duty forces in the 21st century.

This is the first deployment in 17 years as an Army reservist for Maj. John Dowling, a public affairs officer at Eagle Base and a public relations executive for the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development. "When I first joined in 1985, I thought we'd be fighting the Russians somewhere in the middle of Europe," he said. "Now the world is a different animal and peacekeeping is a lot more important, so we've had to adjust."

The trend towards increasing use of Reserves started at the end of the Cold War, when the Pentagon began to reduce the number of active duty troops. But it has accelerated since Sept. 11, 2001.

In 2000, it was projected that by next year the Reserves would make up two-thirds of the force in Bosnia. Yet all of the 1,800 U.S. soldiers here -- more than 1,000 from Pennsylvania -- are Reserve already as the U.S. military stretches to maintain a variety of peacekeeping missions, hunt down al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and prepare for a possible confrontation with Iraq.

"It's put relevancy in our jobs," said Sgt. Horace Pysher of the 28th Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard, based in Harrisburg, which commands U.S. forces in Bosnia. "Some of our soldiers have put in 20 years of training, and maybe they did some flood relief or something like that, but this is their first chance to do something for national defense."

Most of the soldiers who came to Eagle Base had a choice. Many mobilized units needed to bring only a fraction of their members, so they brought only volunteers. Soldiers here say they were happy to come, or at least felt a responsibility to do so.

"You will always have a percentage who will grumble, but most of the people stepped up," said Pysher, who in civilian life is assistant executive director of the Cambria County Solid Waste Authority. "Maybe it comes at an inconvenient time in their life in terms of family or jobs, but this is what they signed up to do."

"I collected a paycheck for 21 years and it was time to give something back," said Norton, the head nurse. "I could have respectfully declined but I couldn't have lived with myself," added Maser, the hospital administrator. Some warn that asking Guard and Reserve soldiers to take on longer assignments further from home will hurt morale. "Part-time reservists are being turned into full-time soldiers and airmen through extended and unpredictable active duty assignments," wrote U.S. Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, in an open letter this year to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "Such treatment is rapidly killing the morale of the Reserves and eliminates the support of family, friends and employers."

Soldiers at Eagle Base say that hasn't happened yet.

"There's always the question of how often you're going to get called up. When is enough enough?" asked Pysher. "We may not have that answer for several years."

Eagle Base does what it can to keep up spirits. To stave off homesickness, there are basketball and football leagues, aerobics classes, classes in Serbo-Croatian and computers, even a fashion show.

Sgt. Jamie Allen, a customer service representative for AT&T who lives in Jackson, Miss., keeps busy with a gospel choir, a church theater group and regular exercise. "Everyone is like, 'Why are you going to have a fashion show at Eagle Base?' Well, what else are we going to do?"

Being away from the responsibilities of home also has its advantages. Many soldiers say they're in better shape because they have more time to exercise. Allen has lost 20 pounds.

Doctors at Eagle Base report that many people also use spare time to deal with nagging health problems, and that elective surgery is common. "You'd be surprised how many vasectomies we've done," Norton said.

To get ready for deployment, all units got extra training at home, then at Fort Benning in Georgia and in Germany, which turns a six-month stint in Bosnia into nine months away from home.

Most of the soldiers got at least a year's notice that they'd be coming to Bosnia. But many were told at the last minute. Hines, the legal clerk from Philadelphia, found out 11 days before mobilization that he was headed for Bosnia. He left behind a seven-month-old son and a fiancee, who cried when he told her the news. "She knew I wanted to come so she gave me her blessing, but I miss them." He phones every day.

Hines, like most of the soldiers here, said their bosses were cooperative. "My employer, though he was a bit aghast, his first words were 'OK, what do we need to do to?'" said Maj. Bill Byers, a physical therapist from Wimberley, Texas, who works in the hospital at Eagle Base.

"Sept. 11 helped us in that regard," spokesman Dowling said. "Employers didn't understand it before; now they do."

Employers are required by law to keep a job open for someone on Guard or Reserve duty, but some find a way to get rid of soldiers while they are away.

Eagle Base was site of a major test for the National Guard. Two years ago, the 49th Armored Division of the Texas National Guard became the first Reserve unit to command regular Army forces. There were concerns that Reserve troops might not be up to the task.

But the 49th fulfilled its mission without a hitch, and soldiers here say that having real-world experience makes them better peacekeepers. Regular soldiers "are good, but they have a rigid way of doing things. We're more used to the civilian world and that's more similar to what we do here," Dowling said.

"If I can't understand different cultures, I can't do my business. So that's helped me here," said Norton, who travels 200 days out the year, often abroad, for her business.

Reserve troops, on average, are 17 years older than active-duty troops, which also helps.

"We're older, we're more mature, and we look at things much differently," Norton said. "We're volunteers, and we want to be here, and we want to help."