Mission: Peace

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A local soldier's view of life within a historic NATO peacekeeping effort in Kosovo

Dale Tokheim is a teacher/coach at Schaller-Crestland Schools, who, along with a number of local National Guard members, have been called away from careers and families to serve active duty in the volatile region of Kosovo, a province of Serbia that has been under United Nations control since 1999. He has agreed to write about the experience to share with Pilot-Tribune readers.

I've started this article several times but something always seems to come up in my job that prevents me from finishing. I am First Sergeant for Team Cyclone on the KFOR 9 deployment, and that means I deal with the soldiers' health, welfare, and morale. I've been in the Iowa National Guard for almost 20 years with 18 of those as a surveyor in the Storm Lake unit. The last two years I have been in Estherville with the 1st Battalion 194th Field Artillery, which makes up a majority of TM Cyclone.

Kosovo is part of Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. We were mobilized in February of 2007 and started training at the local armories. This was a new type of deployment where a lot of the training would be done prior to the mobilization site so we wouldn't have to spend as many months away from home. We actually set a very high standard with completing over 98% and many times 100% on each requirement that we had. On July 18, 2007 we started our federal orders and on the 20th we shipped off to Camp Atterbury for our mobilization training. We finished our training phase with an intense month in Hohenfells, Germany. We arrived at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, in October, where we learned from our counterparts before taking over the mission.

To understand our mission you have to know a little about the big picture. We are a part of the Multi-National Task Force- East which also has units from Armenia, Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Ukraine.

This is part of a larger NATO-led international force known as the Kosovo Force (KFOR). KFOR is responsible for establishing and maintaining security in Kosovo. The organization entered Kosovo on June 12, 1999 under a United Nations mandate, two days after the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244. The objectives of KFOR are to establish and maintain a secure environment in Kosovo, including public safety and order; to monitor, verify and when necessary, enforce compliance with the agreements that ended the conflict; and to provide assistance to the U.N. Mission in Kosovo.

The conflict I mentioned earlier is between the Albanians and Serbians who live here. (Shown in gold on the map, page 1.) Kosovo is a state/province of Serbia but it has a majority of Albanians and the Albanians would like independence or to join with the country of Albania. Serbia does not want to let one of its states/provinces leave. The Albanians will tell you that the Serbians mistreated/persecuted them in the 1990's which probably did happen. Think about Slobodan Milosovec and Bosnia; that is probably similar to what happened in Kosovo but on a smaller scale. The United Nations tried to protect the Albanians politically but couldn't so in 1999 the U.S. led force bombed Serbia. Once an agreement was reached, NATO came in to provide a safe and secure environment. Early on during the KFOR mission the majority Albanians decided to seek some revenge and burned down Serbian churches, homes and businesses. KFOR did get things under control as the mission is to protect everybody and provide a safe and secure environment to all.

What does that all mean for me and my guys? Well, every day we send out patrols into our sector to visit with the local population. We want to let people know we are here to help protect them. Plus, the guys try and gather intelligence about possible demonstrations, subversive organizations, and just general problems in the area. We don't make promises to people but we do try and coordinate medical operations, veterinarian operations, and municipality or school projects.

We also set up Vehicle Check Points quite often to try and interdict smuggling. Smuggling is one of the major problems over here because the customs tax is a major source of tax revenue for the government. The local governments really struggle over here to provide the public services that we are accustomed to, including an adequate education. Joint patrols with the local police are also done to try and help teach them how to handle certain situations. The guys also do joint patrols with the Serbian Army along the Administrative Boundary Line (basically a border but we can't call it that because of the politics involved) to interdict smuggling and to build relations with Serbia.

The Albanians and Serbians have been waiting for an answer about Kosovo's final status from the U.N. for almost a decade and some people are getting impatient. There have been a couple of elections to the Kosovo government since we have been here. We did not get involved in the politics but just let the public know we were here to allow freedom of movement and to allow the political process happen without interruption. The deadline for the Final Status decision has come and gone, but the U.N. pushes back the final date for many valid political reasons. However, the Albanians are threatening to declare a Unilateral Independence on their own. So we have seen demonstrations in the larger municipalities from both sides and they have all been peaceful. We carry our equipment to include live ammunition everyday but hopefully things continue to remain peaceful.

It is hard to know what the right thing to do politically is because we talk to people from both sides and we hear both points of view. Of course, the Albanians really love the US because they see us as the saviors of 1999 when we led the NATO attack to protect them. Some Serbians have problems with the US because they lost family members in the 1999 bombings, but I think most understand that the soldiers are not politicians and we are here to protect everyone. In fact, we have seen the Serbian population's attitude to us personally improve. We are currently working in a Serbian majority area in the MNTF-North area which is the French sector. Although our living conditions for the two months we were in this area haven't been as nice as we normally have, the guys have really done a fantastic job up here. I think they are very proud of the rapport they have built with the people of the area and with the French Army.

Pilot-Tribune Editor Dana Larsen asked me about how the deployment affected my life back home with missing my family, teaching and football.

I must say as a teacher I hate being gone for one day because it is more work to get things ready for someone else than it is to just be there. So you can imagine how much I hated getting my classes ready for someone else for a year. The nice thing was I was notified in February so I had time to get organized before I left in June. Now we have a syllabus, standards & benchmarks already done so the big picture is ready for someone else to take over. It just took me a while to get all of my resources organized. Plus, you have to realize that every teacher is going to put his/her own touch on how and what they teach and emphasize and just trust the kids will learn without you. I do miss teaching. The other thing that I worried about was who would take over the Middle School Quiz Bowl and would anyone put on the S-C Quiz Bowl? I recruited a few people and am pretty sure they will get a team together but I am not sure if anyone will put on the tournament because that is quite a commitment.

Football season was hard for me and I would stay up when I could to get the score or I would look it up on the internet. We were so lucky at S-C to get Mike Tiedeman to take over as head coach for the year and even luckier that my good friend Doug Davidson agreed to stay on staff one more year. I know they only went 3-6 but it was a tough year emotionally and the team played with heart and class. I am very proud of everyone on the team and it is hard for me to talk about without getting choked up. The senior football players were a special group and I wish I could have been there with them for their last year. I will miss them and appreciate their loyalty. Looking towards next year it was hard to know what was right for S-C but I think we made the right decision and I can't wait to get back to start a new chapter in our football story.

My family. Wow! It is hard to explain how hard it is to leave them but I think everyone knows that is the hardest thing to leave behind for a year. My oldest son Joe is in 7th grade and is playing his first year of sports in school, so I am missing all of those events. Plus, I would like to be able to give advice about how to handle certain situations in school, in sports, etc. Zach is in the 5th grade and I was always the one who would check his math and help him with his Social Studies and Science homework. He asked me once last spring who was going to coach his baseball team and basketball team next year, and put on the Jr. 'Cats football program. That was hard to answer because he knew that I had always done that, but we talked about who would do it because we have so many great parents at S-C that we knew someone would step up and help out. I was disappointed that I had to miss two baseball seasons. "Big Jake" is in 1st grade and I miss reading together and playing games together. It is funny how you miss the little things. I miss my wife Lesa but feel lucky that she is such a strong person that she can handle everything on her own. Of course it helps being from small town Iowa. Lesa has a great support network. Her co-workers at Alta Elementary School have been a big help, our friends of the three communities of Schaller-Crestland have been fantastic, and of course she couldn't get by without our families.

At the beginning of the deployment I said (and meant) that I was excited about the challenge and looked forward to the experience. Many of the soldiers said the same thing. I just hope that our families understand that when we said that, it didn't mean we wanted to leave or that we would choose to leave them. It's that we know that deployments are part of our military commitment. I don't think a person should run from their challenges or problems so I wasn't going to try and get out of my commitment. I certainly wouldn't leave my brothers in arms. I am proud to serve my country and am willing to go wherever they send me. I guess I just try and look at the positive things about this experience. For example, the pay and benefits are pretty good compared to a teacher's salary. Plus, as a small town kid and a Social Studies teacher who hasn't been able to travel much this is a great learning experience. As a leader I have faced many new challenges.

Most importantly, I hope that I teach my children, my students and my players with my actions as I try and exemplify what I preach; loyalty, get involved, be classy, and remember there are only two things you can control: your attitude and effort.

Of course my men have even more challenges than I do; some are missing a year of college, some had loved ones pass away, some have young children that change every day, some had children born during the deployment. I can't tell you how proud I am of the men in the 1st BN 194th FA, and especially the guys who are a part of Team Cyclone. Our Team is made up of men from all over Iowa, including 14 from the Storm Lake Unit (G CO 334 BSB). Our Battalion has guys from the Storm Lake area including from the towns of: Newell, Fonda, Alta, Albert City, Laurens, Marathon, Schaller, Early, Storm Lake, Sioux Rapids, Peterson, and Odebolt. These Midwest guys never complain about the sacrifices they make and always seem to try and do their best. For many of us it is our second deployment in five years and for some it is their third. But, whenever any of us get down, we just try and remember that others have sacrificed more; like our friends who recently deployed to Iraq for 16 months in a 22 month deployment or the Veterans who have served this country in all of its wars.

In the end we just hope we made a difference and helped out the people of Kosovo.

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