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A soldier’s life – from a Bosnia Vet

November 11, 2010

We all need to honor our veterans, not only for the danger they willingly place themselves in, or the sacrifice they make by leaving their families and loved ones to go to a foreign country, but also for the little sacrifices they make everyday to ensure we at home are as safe as can be.  I would like to tell my experience of what everyday life was like in a combat zone.

First off, this is not some ploy to get people to comment “Thanks for serving” and other such niceties.  While I respect and appreciate the sentiment, my life in the military was by no means as terrifying or dangerous as our soldiers are facing in Iraq in Afghanistan.  I write this for those soldiers, because I don’t think the average American understands the hardships a soldier suffers through for the honor of serving his country.

I shipped out to Bosnia when I was 2o years old.  Having spent the prior three months in Germany (the longest three months of my life) I had to meet-up with my unit already stationed in country.  My unit was the 4/12 Infantry, part of the 1st Armored Division, out of Baumholder, Germany.  We were a typical mechanized infantry battalion, which means we had a large motor-pool comprised of M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, as well as all the other vehicles necessary for a heavy mechanized battalion to operate.  At times, being an infantryman felt more like being a mechanic what with all the maintenance necessary to keep a 32 ton vehicle operational.

When I arrived in Bosnia, it was nothing like I expected.  I landed in Tusla Air Base, after my first ride in a C-130 Hercules (that was fun).  This incidentally was the same place Hillary Clinton claimed she came under sniper fire, of course she was a little untruthful on that part, especially considering how long a shot a sniper would have had to make to even fire at the airfield, but I digress.  From there I took a bus ride over the streets of Bosnia to my newest home, Lodgement Area (LA) Demi.  Apparently who ever named our little bases had a fondness for women’s names, because Jane was another.

The ride in the bus was informative.  I have never experienced what a third world country actually was.  For sure I have seen pictures and video on television, but it is not the same until you see children digging through the trash, or playing in puddles, or constantly being chased by the hundreds of dogs that seem to infest the country.  All this coupled with the destruction caused by a war primarily fought against a civilian populace was quite shocking to my naive American eyes.

The first lesson I learned once I reached LA Demi was to never walk on uncleared land.  For those who don’t know, the former Yugoslavia is in the top three countries of the world for most landmines per square mile.  And they were not kidding.  It is so bad over there, we literally were not allowed to walk on earth unless the engineers cleared it before hand.  Can you imagine that?  How does a farmer live in a land like that?

The farmers get by somehow, and they are quite fearless too.  More than once, we had to call on the EOD guys to blow a landmine in place that a farmer dug up and left at the side of the road for us to find.  This was not meant as a trap for us, they just didn’t know what to do with them.  Frequently our guys would have to go tell the farmers to just leave the mines in their field and we would go get them, but they never seemed to listen, I guess they knew something we didn’t, because I never recall hearing of a mine going off when a farmer did this.

What was LA Demi like?  Well for starters, we lived in what we called Conexes, or Conex in the singular.  These were little pre-fab buildings the same size as the storage containers you see on trains or ships.  Mine housed four soldiers with all their gear.  These Conexes were composed in a horseshoe pattern around the Lodgement Area, with the latrines at the back, the PX on the left, and the mess-hall in the middle, all tied together with a boardwalk.  All our electricity was provided by generators, so you quickly learned to drown out the noise.

Our motor pool where all our tracks were kept was in the front of the post, and completely dirt.  The weather in Bosnia is not the nicest in the world, I guess about the same as New England.  Which is okay if you have central heat and work in an office, but really sucks if you have to trudge in snow and mud to go work on your vehicle, which has heat but only in two places, the rest is just cold-ass metal.  Not to mention, we also had to do guard duty.

Around the Lodgement Area were four guard towers, pretty impressive constructions I thought.  They stood about 20 feet tall, with about a 16 square foot platform to stand on.  Guard was kept 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Now remember, this was 1996, we did not have all the equipment soldiers now possess, so common items seen nowadays like night vision goggles, were pretty rare to be issued.  Often on guard, the two men per tower had to share night vision.  There was no heat, and we were standing in the wind, it was pretty miserable.  A typical guard shift was 4 hours.  You can get pretty cold in that amount of time, especially at night.

Interesting little story I would like to relate about guard duty.  I had my wisdom teeth taken out while at LA Demi (I found out pretty quickly, it was one of the bigger lodgement areas in the American Sector) in the little Dental Conex we had on base.  It wasn’t so bad, I didn’t need to go under or anything, but I was bleeding profusely.  Apparently that wasn’t enough to keep me from my scheduled guard duty, so I was back in a tower, blood dripping out of my mouth, not really even thinking about bad guys and hoping my buddy up there with me was.

LA Demi was our central staging area, we had other little post we had to man in our part of the sector.  My favorite was called Whiskey 30.  This was a checkpoint on the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.  It composed of about 100 meters of road, with a little guard shack and a Bradley on each end.  In between were 3 GP Medium tents, one as a sort of common room, and the other two for us to sleep in, us being 2 squads of soldiers, or a half-platoon, or about 18 people.  We slept on cots, little metal fold-up beds with canvas as the surface to sleep on, about 6 feet long, which sucks if you are 6’4″ like I am.  Either your Achilles tendon is resting on metal or the back of your head is, we didn’t have pillows.  Our fartsack, excuse me, sleeping bag was our only cushioning, and the primary source of heat, although we did have kerosene heaters in the tents, which required a soldier to be on “fire watch” for each tent whenever the heaters were active.  Our latrine was a port-a-pottie.

Duty at Whiskey three-zero primarily consisted of making sure cars traveling across the border did not have bombs rigged to them, or more than six weapons in them (according to the Dayton peace accord, they could have up to six weapons in their cars but no more).  Usually we would take turns, 1 hour in the guard shack, 1 hour in the Bradley.  I much preferred the Bradley – something about a car-bomb going off, I would rather be in a 32 ton vehicle than the one checking the car.  Plus a Bradley has a 25mm canon, so that would have been interesting if someone wanted to try something.

Downtime at W-30 was rather boring.  Remember, this was before Ipods, portable game systems, cheap laptops, wireless networking, international cell phone coverage, blackberries, etc.  Portable CD players were the music system of choice, but not many of us had them.  We did have a TV and a VCR in the common room, but only 2 movies, Clerks and a Wallace and Gromitt movie, I can quote them both in their entirety.  We also had books donated by nice people, so much of my time was spent reading, which is not a bad thing, but it is nice to have an option.

Something else I got to occasionally read were “To any soldier” letters.  These were letters, often written by school children, addressed to any soldier, so it was pretty random what you got.  Usually you were made to take one every now and then, but you could ask for more.  These were fun little letters that showed some people were actually thinking about us over in the armpit of Europe.  I don’t know if they do that anymore, with the internet available to our soldiers nowadays, but it was a cool thing I enjoyed immensely.

So what did a soldier have to wear?  At all times except when in our tents, we had to wear our K-Pot (kevlar helmet), flak-vest, and load bearing device (that’s the crap we were to carry ammo and canteens), not to mention our BDUs (Battle Dress Uniform, or our camouflage).  We didn’t have any other form of clothing except our PT uniform (gym clothes if you will) so our BDUs were the standard.  This gear is not horribly heavy, but it is terribly uncomfortable.  The helmet weighs like 5 pounds, and only has a small amount of webbing to keep it off your head, which quickly dug into your skull leaving an imprint for days after.

I was a SAW (squad automatic weapon) gunner, so I carried a M-249 SAW with 200 rounds of linked 5.56 mm ammunition.  This was a smaller machine-gun than an M-60, but fired at a much higher cyclic rate, up to 1000 rounds a minute.  It still weighed over twenty pounds, which got real heavy by the end of guard duty.

The best part about my two tours in Bosnia, I never had to fire a shot.  I can not imagine what our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan must go through having to shoot people, and be shot at.  I know it is not like in the movies.  It is horrible.  A bullet does amazing damage to the human body; it doesn’t just make a little blood spot like you see on TV.  Body parts get blown off, heads explode and gore and carnage are the norm not the exception.

Soldiers nowadays have a lot more amenities than I, and light years more than our predecessors in Vietnam, Korea or WWII, but they deserve everything they get for what my previous paragraph describes.  And while they have Ipods and cell phones, they are still separated from their families and loved ones, and I am sure their living conditions are not much different from what I experienced in Bosnia.

For what our soldiers do, we should do more.  We need to write letters, send care packages, DVD’s, anything to let these brave men and women understand we love them.  You can not imagine what a nice letter or care package can do to keep a person going when they are feeling down.  Soldiers are people too, and believe me when I say, they suffer from the same psychological problems we all do, we just aren’t getting shot at when we get depressed.  I have seen first-hand what happens when a soldier decides to leave the field early – let’s just say a 5.56mm round to the stomach is pretty nasty, and he will live with a colostamy bag for the rest of his life.  Could a care package or letter had helped him to get through his troubled time?  I don’t know, but possibly.

Again, I wrote this so the average American can understand the day-to-day life of a soldier in a combat zone, not to garner praise from anyone.  My readers are conservatives, so I already know how you appreciate the sacrifice of our soldiers, if you want to thank their service in a comment, that is fine, but please don’t thank me.  Our current crop of soldiers are going through something none of us can imagine, and we need to do whatever we can to make their time in combat easier.  If you get anything out of this post, that is the message I want to give.  Do something for them, please?

God bless our troops.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2010 3:01 pm

    Thanks for your service. Here is a blog written by some guy in the military… you may enjoy it. I found it rather by accident but they have some pretty interesting pieces:

    http://www.onviolence.com/

    • November 11, 2010 7:47 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Harrison.

  2. bunkerville permalink
    November 11, 2010 3:27 pm

    That was intense-thanks.

  3. JustFacts permalink
    November 11, 2010 6:22 pm

    Fleece – Did your family know about the conditions you were enduring while you were in Bosnia? Did they provide you with support?

    I understand that our military isn’t a luxury job and that you volunteered for the service, and certainly, wartime conditions require that our troops must endure some hardship. But it certainly seems like with all the money we provide for military expenditures, there is no excuse for having to endure these kinds of conditions on a peacekeeping mission.

    • November 11, 2010 6:35 pm

      Yes they did, and they wrote letters and provided excellent support.

      I think from a military standpoint, us soldiers would prefer better equipment to nice amenities. Whether or not that is a conscious choice by our higher-ups is a different issue. For their part, I was rather surprised by what was available, it can’t be easy getting stuff out to our troops in the middle of a hostile environment. Not to mention the specifics of the mission require certain hardships.

      At Whiskey three-zero, the duty was for a half-platoon, we didn’t even have mess facilities, our meals were brought to us everyday by one of our NCO’s. Since the nature of the duty was for such a small detachment, having nicer facilities just don’t seem feasible.

      Plus, hardships make for a tougher soldier. My post was meant more as a reminder that feeling love for our troops is not enough, we need to express it externally through letters, care packages and other means. We can not change the life a soldier must live, that is the nature of being a soldier, what we can change is how the soldier feels his country thinks of his service.

      • JustFacts permalink
        November 11, 2010 7:25 pm

        Somehow, though requiring you to pull your guard duty while bleeding profusely seems a little over the top. It doesn’t do any good to be on guard duty if you were physically incapable of doing your job. If you had ended up passing out due to pain or bloodloss and fell off the tower, you would just be another statistic.

        I bet you didn’t tell your family about that episode.

      • November 11, 2010 8:45 pm

        I wasn’t so out of it that if the crap went down I wouldn’t have been able to do something, its just my eyes and ears weren’t exactly on the ball, which can be dangerous.

      • Rick Brown permalink
        January 20, 2011 8:05 pm

        From one Bosnia vet to another I am glad to read about an experience in which i shared. I was with the 4-12 mechanized infantry headquarters company as a BFVM mechanic at living area dimi and diane. I recall much of the same ordeals as you and have never forgotten the experience of that deployment. It was tough but made me better for it. I recall a soldier who could not handle the extremes of deployment and shot himself in a mortar pit and like you said is probably still wearing a colostamy bag. I also recall a specialist in our scout platoon who hit a anti-tank mine with his bradley and messing up his back. It blew his bradley all to hell. I remember seeing it when the m88 recovery vehicle brought it to la diane. Track gone, road wheels gone, real nasty explosion. He was shipped back to Germany and recovered and returned with a purple heart and continued his tour. I recall a patrol I went on with the scouts to a weapons depot to count weapons and munitions. I was fortunate to have gone because i was not a scout but a mechanic. But i met the standard qualifications on the mark 19 and qualified to go on this patrol. I also happen to be friends with the scouts platoon seargant and he was willing to bring me along. We were in kladon , not sure if i spelled that right but any ways we got to the warehouse and I couldnt believe my eyes on all that was there. No cameras were aloud but there was so many weapons seized from the serbs and we had to count all the weapons and munition to include nato munitions. Any way I agree with sending our troops letters and care packages and let them know they are not forgotten and america awaits a swift return from our troops.

      • January 20, 2011 9:49 pm

        He Rick, thanks for stopping by and commenting. =)

        4-12 HQ huh? I am sure we passed each other a couple times at demi and diane. I remember the Brad getting hit by that landmine. I also remember doing a weapon’s count at Karadzic “Eagle’s Nest”, can’t remember the name of the place, but like all things Bosnian, it seemed to start with a K.

        Its nice to see another soldier from the 4-12. =)

  4. November 11, 2010 8:27 pm

    That was interesting, thanks for it. I’m pretty well steeped in the military culture, so it’s hard for me to even imagine what those outside it really think, or understand about it.

    You’re right about sending stuff. I should get with the USO office on base.

    Cheers

    • November 11, 2010 8:43 pm

      Yep, even if you just have some old books or magazines laying around, good way to clean out some junk and help our troops at the same time. =)

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