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Balkans mission sharpens soldiers

MUCIBABA, YUGOSLAVIA — MUCIBABA, Yugoslavia -- Five years ago, Brian Scholl was enjoying his senior year in high school at Calvert Hall in Towson.

Now, the 22-year-old U.S. Army sergeant is on a tree-lined hill in Kosovo, working another 16-hour shift to keep the peace in a land far from home, inspecting battered old cars and rusted trucks that trundle up a dusty road.

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"The locals wish we could stay here forever," says Scholl, who entered the Army shortly after graduating. "That's not going to happen."

It has been two years since NATO launched its 78-day air war against Yugoslavia, and American soldiers such as Scholl are still hunkered down in the Balkans. But for how long, nobody knows.

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While political leaders and diplomats assess the merits of keeping 37,000 Western-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, including 5,400 U.S. soldiers, it's up to those like Scholl to follow orders and make sure war doesn't break out in a place where arms and rebel recruits are as plentiful as ethnic hatreds stoked through the centuries.

"I think we definitely do good here," Scholl says.

When NATO's bombs stopped raining down on Yugoslavia in 1999, the peacekeepers came in to deal with the aftermath of the war and of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's ruthless policy of ethnic cleansing.

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians, who were chased out of the country by Milosevic's troops, returned to the villages and towns of Kosovo. Tens of thousands of Serbians fled, some because they feared retribution for what occurred during the war, others driven out by rebel bands of fighters with the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The situation inside Kosovo seems to be stabilizing, even if the provincial capital, Pristina, resembles a Wild West town, complete with bars, brothels and gun-toting lawmen.

Beyond Kosovo's borders, though, ethnic Albanian guerrillas have encroached into southern Serbia's Presevo Valley, and, most devastatingly, into nearby Macedonia, where a rebel insurgency has flared for more than a week in the hills above the city of Tetovo.

While war embers smolder elsewhere, Scholl is engaged in the nuts and bolts of peacekeeping.

To find him, wind through the belly of southern Serbia, past garrison towns overflowing with Yugoslav army soldiers, past muddy fields hand-turned for spring planting, across a ridge piled with garbage and populated by wild dogs, through successive checkpoints manned by weary Serbian police, and then ethnic rebel Albanian guerrillas who may be spoiling for a fight, and finally up a hill.

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This is Check Point 67, dubbed Check Point Terminator, the Kosovo-Serbia border.

"There are a lot of people who have it easier than our platoon," says Scholl, a member of the 1st Armored Division and a gunner in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. "This checkpoint is one of the more difficult missions."

What makes it difficult is that the soldiers are out in the field most of the time, inspecting vehicles laden with passengers and goods, keeping watch on nearby hills covered with trees that have yet to show spring buds but that could be pocked with potential snipers. The soldiers rotate back to main bases for showers, hot meals, and a chance to use computers and telephones to reach those back home.

Scholl's parents live in Timonium. His mother, Kathleen, is a medical technologist at Greater Baltimore Medical Center; his father, G. Richard, is an accountant at Stoy, Malone & Co, in Towson; and his older brother, Richard, a 1998 Loyola College graduate, works in information technology in New York.

In Scholl's schedule, timing may be everything. "We rotate into camp every fourth day," he says. "I got to see the Ravens win the Super Bowl."

In the field, Scholl lives in a portable cabin protected by sandbags and surrounded by mud. The checkpoint includes a house and a wooden observation tower with a portable heater. In his off hours, he sleeps, lifts weights and watches television.

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Mostly, he just watches a lot of cars go by.

"It's almost like customs," he says. "Someone pulled up to the checkpoint once and said, 'Nothing to claim.'"

Does being a peacekeeper make him a better soldier?

"While it's not related to our job, there are a lot of important lessons for soldiers to learn down here -- discipline and security," he says. "You get to learn a lot more about how the military runs in a larger sense."

For a close view of American military muscle, head to the Army's main base in Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel.

Set on a hill, sprawling over 900 acres and protected by an 8-foot-high rounded ledge that extends along the entire 7-mile perimeter, Camp Bondsteel shows that when the U.S. Army comes to town, it likes to stay for quite a while. Built to last from three to five years, there is a permanence about the place, from the barracks for more than 3,000 soldiers to the landing pad filled with a helicopter arsenal that includes lethal-looking Apaches. There's a library, hospital, chapel, educational facilities, post offices, post exchange, sports centers and a food court that features what may be the most famous fast-food joint in the Balkans, a Burger King.

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The grass appears manicured, and the dirt roads are to be paved.

Overseeing the camp and U.S. forces in Kosovo is Brig. Gen. Kenneth J. Quinlan. Behind his desk is a poster listing his 10 rules.

Rule One: "Make security and safety our first priority."

Some have criticized U.S. troops for being overly cautious, more concerned with protecting the force than peacekeeping. It's a criticism the general eagerly discusses and disputes.

"To be a good peacekeeper you have to be a good warrior," Quinlan says. "A disciplined, trained, cohesive, competent warrior makes a good peacekeeper. The fact that we wear Kevlar body armor, hold our fingers in proper position outside the trigger well and that we have an image that we are a warrior, does not take away from our peacekeeping ability."

Quinlan says his soldiers are "integrated in the communities where they operate. They know the leaders, they know the people, they mingle with them. They understand what is going on."

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He emerges as a strong proponent of the Balkan mission, saying it will help the U.S. military in future engagements.

"We are gaining every ounce of training value here in Kosovo," Quinlan says. "Kosovo is good for our army, not just good for Kosovo, not just good for Balkans stability. This is sergeants' time every day in Kosovo. They are in charge. They have live ammunition. They have an unpredictable threat they face every day. They make decisions on the spot. You can't replicate that."

He adds, "The sword is not getting rusty here in Kosovo."

No one is certain how long the mission will last. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said this month, "This is not an endless commitment, but it's a commitment we intend to see through."

Quinlan says, "Success will be measured in months and years here, not in days here in Kosovo.

"What I've told everybody is we want to leave Kosovo a little bit better than what we found it. And hand the baton to the next guy," he says.

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Back at Check Point Terminator, Scholl has his own ideas of how long the mission will last. Surveying the line of cars and trucks, the cabins, the house and the wooden observation tower, he says, "We're not set up to just pick up and move tomorrow."


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