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Crisis in Yugoslavia

In U.S., Ground Troops and Families Wait for a Call That Might Yet Come

April 03, 1999|J. R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FT. BRAGG, N.C. — As the possibility grew that U.S. ground troops might be sent into Kosovo, tension increased on the ground here, where the first wave of U.S. ground troops would most likely come from.

On the surface, it seemed a quiet, peaceful spring day at this sprawling military base. A Good Friday holiday was granted to nearly all the 47,000 men and women stationed here, and most spent the downtime with their families: relaxing, resting--and packing.

"If I'm in the Army, and I'm based at Ft. Bragg, I've got my concerned antenna in the air," said a top-ranking colonel at the adjacent Pope Air Force Base, where C-130 transport planes stand ready to carry Ft. Bragg's 82nd Airborne Division to Europe should President Clinton reverse himself and commit ground forces to the region.

That possibility appeared to grow ever likelier to troops here as the news grew gloomier throughout the day. In the base health clubs and hangars, and wherever troops congregated, they were watching TV, staring angrily at the sight of three U.S. being held captive in Yugoslavia.

Then came reports that some Pentagon officials--and several members of Congress--were urging Clinton to call in the infantry. Then bombs fell on Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital.

With each passing hour, it seemed that Ft. Bragg, Pope Air Force Base and, by extension, the surrounding community of families and friends would inevitably be drawn into another faraway conflict.

"My girlfriend is freaking," said Deborah Hammett, who works at Ft. Bragg and knows several wives of servicemen. "Her husband--they just deleted his orders to go to Korea." Meaning, he might soon be sent to Kosovo instead.

But most servicemen and their spouses were reacting to the day's news with practiced calm. The general attitude: No matter what happens, we're good to go.

"You just get ready," said Vincent Alonso, a sergeant with the 82nd Airborne and a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But he quickly added, "You try to think about it as little as you can."

"They're leaning forward, and they're ready to go," said Col. Michael Delman, a deputy commander with the 43rd Airlift Wing, a key piece of the U.S. military's rapid-response force stationed at Pope. "We have the best-trained air force in the world."

Some said that along with the heightened readiness, military anger is higher now that the conflict has three human faces--those of the Army soldiers being held prisoner.

"Naturally, you're angry," said Staff Sgt. Charles McCowan, with the 43rd, recalling the moment Thursday morning when he woke and saw three men wearing the same uniform he wears every day, their faces appearing bruised. "But everybody also knows--the mission must go on."

At a Good Friday service in the Ft. Bragg chapel, troops from Bragg and Pope gathered to pray for the safety of loved ones who may be deployed, and for those soldiers already overseas. Before going inside, Senior Airman Brian Moses spent a few minutes watching his young son frolic in the sunshine.

"A lot of people are talking about [the prisoners]," said Moses, a member of the 43rd's maintenance squadron. "It doesn't look good for them. [The Serbs] don't like us. And if they wouldn't hesitate to kill their own, why would they hesitate to kill some of ours?"

When he hears his fellow troops talk about Kosovo around the base, Moses said, they seem evenly divided, like most Americans. Some believe that the U.S. has no business meddling in a nation so far away. Others feel personally invested in the crisis.

"A lot of people want to go and kick some butt," Moses said.

Inside the church, Col. Philip J. Fain, one of five chaplains from Pope, used his sermon to link the sacrifice of Jesus with the sacrifice of those soldiers in Kosovo. "We must remember them," he said, "because what they're doing enables us to do what we're doing: express our freedom of religion."

Unlike what polls show about the rest of America, there seemed to be a fairly good understanding of the Kosovo conflict among troops on the base. Not so down the road at a shopping mall favored by service members and their families.

"People don't watch the news," said a disgusted Howard Said, owner of a kiosk business called Italian Jewelry. Often, he said, he'll get a customer in uniform, and he'll try to engage the customer in conversation about the crisis overseas. Incredibly, he finds the troops are unaware of world events.

But during an afternoon party at Pope--a celebration of recent successful military exercises--many pilots and soldiers were only too glad to discuss the readiness of their unit.

"We're the point on the end of the spear," said Col. Steve Acuff, vice commander of the 43rd Airlift Wing. "When America dials 911, we're the ones who answer the phone."

He motioned across the way, toward Ft. Bragg.

"There's an individual ready battle regiment over there on two hours string," he said. "If the phone rings, they have two hours to assemble."

Then, the planes at Pope have 18 hours to get them in the air.

And none of that includes the special-operations soldiers, the elite of the elite.

"The people Demi Moore and Steve Seagal pretend to be," he said, "live right here."

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