U.S. Troops Get Bosnian Education; Peacekeepers Learn to Appreciate Ethnic Mix and Value of Living in the United States.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: EUROPE)

Article excerpt

Byline: Guy Taylor, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

EAGLE BASE, TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina - U.S. soldiers stationed here are quick to point out that the large pine tree decorated with lights and holiday ornaments near the center of the base is not a Christmas tree.

"It's a liberty tree," said Maj. Shawn R. Mell, explaining that an important part of living on this NATO base, which is headquarters to the American component of the international peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, is learning to appreciate the country's mix of religions, with Muslims the plurality.

"We don't have a Christmas tree here, because we're honoring all of those faiths," he said. "You've got so many different holidays happening around this time - from Christmas to Ramadan to the Russian Orthodox New Year to our New Year - so we're honoring that."

At the end of Ramadan in November, Brig. Gen. John T. von Trott, the top officer at Eagle Base, invited Mohammed Lugavic, an imam from the Tuzla City Mosque, to address the troops and give them a "better understanding of Ramadan and other holidays." Gen. von Trott said he was impressed by the imam, who has organized a multifaith organization in Tuzla called "the bridge" to improve communication among the city's Muslims, Roman Catholic Croats and Russian Orthodox Serbs.

The three groups spent the early part of the 1990s fighting one another amid the breakup of Yugoslavia. The war killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced about half of Bosnia's 4 million people.

The expression on Sgt. Jason Cole's face is thoughtful as the humvee he is riding in rattles to a bumpy stop near a row of blown-out buildings on the outskirts of Kalesija, in northeastern Bosnia. Sgt. Cole, a 26-year-old from Beach Lake, Pa., spent the afternoon patrolling a nearby village, stopping at one point to speak with a Bosnian Muslim man who told him life was "going good" though water pipes to most of the houses had frozen.

He walked with a Bosnian translator and three other American peacekeepers to a cafe where he likes to drink coffee and occasionally eat chevapi, a popular local dish of skinless beef sausages and bread. "I like going out and talking with people and finding out what their problems are and hopefully making a difference," he said. "I've learned to appreciate what we have in America."

The most noticeable change in the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia has been its steady reduction in size, from 60,000 in 1996 to fewer than 17,000 now. Recently, there has been another change, embodied in soldiers such as Sgt. Cole: More than 99 percent of the American peacekeepers, about 1,900 troops, are from the National Guard or the Army Reserves rather than active-duty personnel, as were those sent exclusively by the Pentagon when the mission began.

Though it may be too early to evaluate this reliance on "part-time" soldiers, the result so far has been positive. "I think there is a real advantage to having National Guard in these kinds of conditions," said Gen. von Trott, a National Guardsman from Harrisburg, Pa. "My soldiers tend to be a little older, a little more mature, a little more experienced in life," he said. "They bring a great deal to bear in terms of additional skills."

Peacekeeping involves patrolling towns and villages. Soldiers with M-16 automatic rifles travel in small convoys to the towns, where they stop and walk through streets, chatting with people about their daily life. The troops occasionally collect and destroy weapons found in homes in areas where the war raged.

As U.S. military involvement increases in conflicts around the world, the success of National Guard and Reserve troops in Bosnia may indicate a trend in the way the Pentagon manages future peacekeeping missions. The missions have become part of almost any military involvement.

Gen. von Trott said the National Guard prepares soldiers for the situations inherent to peacekeeping. …