Deployment to KFOR

by Carla Webster '99

The Kosovo Force (KFOR) is a NATO-led international force responsible for establishing and maintaining security in Kosovo. This peace-enforcement body entered Kosovo on June 12, 1999, under a United Nations mandate, two days after the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244.

When I was a sophomore ast Scripps, in 1996, I decided I needed to find an autonomous way to fund and finish my education. So, I withdrew and enlisted in the Army. I sometimes wonder where I would be today and how my life would be different had I not made that decision.

Looking back, my foundations at Scripps served me well in persevering through an adventure that I may never have had if I had taken the safe road in life. When asked if I’d like to write something about being deployed to Kosovo in 2003 from my Army Reserve medical unit, I didn’t quite know where to start, or what stories were most important to tell. For me, it was a challenging learning experience where life was the ultimate teacher. In many ways I feel very fortunate to have had the experience, and lucky that I served for a purpose that I believed would help restore peace in a fragile region of the world.

Welcome to KFOR

Our task force,”Task Force Med Falcon,” consisted of a straggly bunch of reservists interspersed with a few National Guard members. We were anything but elite fighting machines. Most of us were nurses, doctors, EMTs, dentists, or hospital administrative personnel, many of whom didn’t work in the profession the Army had chosen for them in the civilian world. I served as a licensed vocational nurse (the Army’s chosen field for me), and sergeant, but had only worked part time in this field while I was finishing my degree in neuroscience at UCLA.

By the time our group was boots on the ground in a “hostile fire zone,” we had spent a month training in Georgia and, well, mostly waiting around while the Army lost our personnel files—twice! We had rolled in the mud together, gone through the gas chamber as a team, and spent many nights at the Karaoke bar at the NCO club doing bad renditions of Aretha Franklin and Queen, since we weren’t allowed to leave post. By the time we arrived in country, we were a family. Somehow the fear of what we might encounter had subsided to a certain comfort that, good or bad, we were all in it together.

I remember the first time I took a good look at the landscape of Kosovo, which was to be my home for between eight months and two years, depending on “the needs of the Army.” The hills were lush and green. It was late winter, and there was snow on top of the mountains. The open space was sweeping and spectacular. If I wasn’t confined to the small camp, and it weren’t for the copious land mines, I should think it would be an ideal place to hike.Then, as the bus left the airport, we got a closer look at our new home. Bombed-out buildings, garbage, old vehicles, and scrap metal lined the roadside.The city of Pristina was harsh and austere. Drivers seemed not to mind swerving into oncoming traffic, barely avoiding a disaster, to get around a slower car or a mule cart.We passed check points, lined with constantina wire and little hutches with the tips of rifles sticking out. We had to wear “full battle rattle,” which consisted of heavy and cumbersome body armor, an M-16 rifle, Kevlar, and ammunition vest. I hated these accessories, as they reminded me that I was there to play soldier, which was not my favorite game.

When we first arrived at Camp Bondsteel, we silently took in the boring view of our little wooden S.E.A. huts all lined up with a cement and sandbag bunker in between each one. The hospital in which I was to spend many days and nights was completely sterile; I had never seen such a spotless medical facility. The Army had hired local nationals as housekeepers, and they would follow us around, mopping the floor behind as we walked. I quickly learned from an interpreter in the hospital, who was a medical doctor, that the going rate for MDs in Kosovo was $200 per month—poor, even by their economy. It was easier to survive as a Kosovar doctor by working for the black market. One such doctor told me that his job was once to examine women for STDs who had been promised freedom, then had their identities stripped, and were forced to work as sex slaves in the human trafficking industry.

After we had settled and slept off the 72 hours of travel, we were inundated with briefings, mass casualty exercises, air raid sirens, and EOD blowing stuff up on “Radar Hill.” It was very hard to sleep with all the commotion and excitement. One thing that really stood out for me about our orientation to Kosovo was the briefing about how morale would likely dip, and that it wasn’t uncommon for task forces to lose an individual to suicide halfway through the deployment. I was stunned. I thought they were just telling us about worst-case scenarios.

A couple days later, the EMTs got a call to respond to a captain’s vehicle that had run off the road. It was a standard call; the roads in Kosovo were rough. When they arrived on scene, the captain was in his POV, seemingly unscathed. As they got closer, he ran out into a field and shot himself in the head. The Army keeps this type of thing under tight seal to prevent other soldiers from succumbing to the stress of being away from home and the uncertainty of when they will return. I wouldn’t have known much about it except that I had to drive and provide security for the Command Staff to his funeral. These losses are the untold casualties of deployment, unreported, and vastly ignored. After this incident, we vowed to take extra good care of each other.

The Good Times

Although nearly a year stuck on a tiny compound, wearing a green uniform, and toting a weapon might not seem like anyone’s idea of fun, we had to get very creative to come up with entertainment. There was always Karaoke; lonely soldiers away from their families for nine months can sing very heartfelt, ear-wrenching Garth Brooks songs. Birthdays were often the most exciting reasons to celebrate, and could get interesting. We would sip on a “near beer,” up the wager on a high stakes snail race hosted by the British contingent, and watch movies projected on sheets outside the huts while sitting in a hot tub consisting of a baby pool with siphoned warm shower water. We would throw “techno raves” in the medical supply warehouses and salsa dances outside the bunkers. It wasn’t exactly Las Vegas, but it did serve to take our minds off of counting the minutes until we got to come home.

The People

My heart goes out to the strong people of Kosovo; they have survived such turmoil and always seemed to manage a cheerful smile and a “Mermanjas” in the morning to greet me in the hospital. They have so little and have been through so much, yet always seem to maintain hope.

Some soldiers from my medical unit and I went out on a mission to set up a clinic for some of the local folks that had been hit very hard by the war. On the way, we passed signs by the side of the road warning that areas were mined. The interpreters would tell us of the strategies used to keep refugees out of their homes by mining their re-entry pathways and homes. We passed sights that are now just slabs of rock covering relatively large areas of land, which were put up as gravesites where people were marched out to fields and mass murdered. There were many homes along the way that had been bombed by mines or grenades. Strangely, often there would be one whole neighborhood that had been destroyed, but immediately across a dirt road, neighborhoods were untouched.

When we got to the small town where we were to set up a clinic, Greek doctors were there to assist us as the entire village lined up for a check-up. Mostly, illnesses were the same as what we see in the U.S., lots of hypertension, asthma, colds, and that sort of thing. Some of the men, teenagers and up, had chronic combatrelated aches and pains. It was an amazing experience just to see the enthusiasm the villagers had in meeting us. The kids would run up and hug us. But,deep down, there was an awareness that horrifying events had taken place in this village only a couple of years earlier. Our interpreter, who was also a nurse and a native of Kosovo, couldn’t wait to leave the village that day, as if she knew what might have happened there. We had heard stories of atrocities; women who covered themselves in feces to prevent being raped, and schools of children who were marched out to fields and shot execution-style. There were land mines that were made to look like toys, brightly colored and curiously squeezable. They were designed to be found, played with, brought back to a village, and then, with more handling, they would detonate. I could see such strength in the weathered faces of the elders, and resilience in the way children would play and sing. One little boy drew me a picture of a plane going into a tower and a big U.S. flag, as if to say, “I get it. I know that feeling.”

Back in the field hospital, we cared for many of the usual injuries and illnesses that multinational peacekeepers would come in with. However, it was always a waiting game. Just when we would get too comfortable with our routine, we would get a major trauma. I worked in the ICU, so if patients made it to my ward, they had survived through the ER and OR.

One of the worst nights of the waiting game for survivors was when we received word that in a nearby village a grenade was thrown into a crowded restaurant. Our emergency department received one of the patients who had managed to survive the initial blow. He was quickly rushed to surgery to retrieve the shrapnel in his legs. Unfortunately, it was embedded in his femoral artery, and after hours of working on him to stop the bleeding, and 20 units of blood, the surgeon pronounced him dead. In times like these, I felt both saddened by the devastating violence, and fortunate that had I been deployed elsewhere, I would’ve been confronted with events like this daily. I felt like my time in Kosovo was a vacation compared to where many of my comrades and friends are now.

Hope for Peace

When the U.S. first decided to go into Kosovo as part of a peacekeeping mission, I didn’t fully understand how dropping bombs and placing soldiers on the ground could facilitate peace. And, I certainly don’t recall the news media around that critical time in 1999 being focused on telling the Balkans’ story. Now that I’ve seen the ramifications of centuries of ethnic hatred and genocide, and how grateful the ethnic Albanians and Serbians are for the U.N. and the U.S. humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts, I feel that we have done, and are doing, the right thing in this fragile region of the world.

Since my deployment, I have been working as a research associate at Stanford last year and University of California-San Francisco this year in the fields of ion channel biophysics, and the mechanotransduction of fine-touch sensation. I am hoping to enter a PhD program in the fall in either neuroscience or biophysics.