CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo - About a dozen North Dakota Army National Guard Soldiers currently deployed here are having a reunion of sorts 10 years after they were first sent to this part of the world to build roads, fortifications and military housing.
Today, they are NATO peacekeepers, here as part of the North Dakota contingent that makes up Kosovo Forces 12 (KFOR) of Multi-National Battle Group-East. In 1999-2000, they also were in Kosovo, as Bravo Company and Headquarters Support Company (HSC), 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB), of Wahpeton, N.D. and Fargo, N.D., respectively, embarking on a very different mission.
In 2000, Capt. Shane P. Clennon, West Fargo, N.D., led a "Horizontal Platoon," comprising equipment operators who constructed roads, dug trenches and performed various other "dirt work" on construction sites.
Some of their projects have become a part of the local landscape, still used today. While others, such as military tank trails and fighting positions have disappeared, as safety and security returns in Kosovo.
"We constructed Camp BondsteelAca,!A,s perimeter road, the main ring road that goes around the city of Gnjilane(Gjilan), Kosovo, bypasses on another main highway called Aca,!A3/4Route HawkAca,!A, and many other projects around Kosovo," Clennon said.
Two more bypasses, designed at the time, to be secondary roads, in case bridges and tunnel were destroyed, were constructed by ClennonAca,!A,s platoon south of Kacanik, Kosovo. These were the kinds of missions that U.S. Soldiers undertook in the early days of NATOAca,!A,s peacekeeping operations in Kosovo.
Clennon explained the Gnjilane/Gjilan ring road was intended to be a bypass for Humvees to reach Camp Montieth, a former military camp that has since been turned over to institutions in Kosovo. The bypass allowed the military to avoid traveling on the busy, narrow streets of Gnjilane/Gjilan and its more than 120,000 residents.
"It took us three weeks to complete the road after we took the mission over from Navy Seabees," Clennon said. "There was just a field here back then, now it has homes and businesses on both sides and it has been paved."
Maj. Jim R. Olson, West Fargo, N.D., currently an operations officer with MNBG- E, was a lieutenant in 2000 in charge of the "Vertical Platoon." The platoon had carpenters and masons capable of building structures needed in the early stages of the mission.
"On our first deployment, our platoon completed several construction missions of varying complexity," Olson said. "We were involved in a lot of Southeast Asia (SEA) hut construction, completing interior work on multiple facilities, construction of bunkers and concrete work around Kosovo."
The SEA huts built by OlsonAca,!A,s platoon are the same structures that he and the rest of his fellow MNBG-E Soldiers still use today on Camp Bondsteel.
When the North Dakota engineers were first in Kosovo, the KFOR mission was active Army-led, first undertaken by the 1st Infantry Division followed by the 82nd Airborne Division. Those units alternated during four 6-month rotations that spanned 1999 to2001.
The Active Army passed the KFOR mission to National Guard units in late 2002.
The mobilization process was a bit more fast-paced back then compared to the process thatAca,!A,s in place now. ItAca,!A,s changed over the years to allow Soldiers and families more notification of and preparation for a mission.
Staff Sgt. Jerald L. Qualley, Detroit Lakes, Minn., said, once he was alerted, he spent about a month getting all his gear ready.
"We then shipped to Fort Benning, Ga., and spent about a week there training on individual tasks," Qualley said. "Next, we were shipped to Camp Able Sentry in the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia."
Qualley and Master Sgt. Scott J. Brewer, Dilworth, Minn., both served as surveyors during their deployment, helping plan projects and monitoring the quality of the work.
Clennon said certain locations near the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL), where he now has meetings with Serbian military officials, are the same spots where his platoon prepared trails and positions for tanks and other equipment 10 years ago.
Spc. Jessie J. Schuler, Wahpeton, N.D., was a supply specialist his first time in Kosovo, and today, heAca,!A,s back again in the same role.
"My duties now are almost the same," he said. "I am still ordering supplies, but this time, itAca,!A,s a lot more office supplies."
Then, there are those little doses of familiarity that sometimes crop up after returning to place that was once "home," according to Staff Sgt. Eric B. Hetland, an MNBG-E information analyst from Bismarck, N.D.
"I currently live in the SEA hut right next door to the one that I called home 10 years ago, he said. "I find the long-shot coincidence of that actually happening at least a little entertaining." he
As when they first arrived in 2000, these dozen or so Soldiers have returned during another defining moment in the Kosovo mission.
At the height of the operation, NATO forces in Kosovo totaled around 50,000. As the security situation in Kosovo improved and the capability of the police increased, the number o KFOR Soldiers has been continually adjusted.
On Feb. 1, KFOR leaders unveiled its newest force structure, designed to be more mobile, flexible and agile, with 10,000 Soldiers.
"We were here right at the beginning of KFORAca,!A,s involvement in the region, and now we are here during a major transition in our role," Olson said. "ItAca,!A,s a very interesting contrast as far as what our concerns were for the region then and what the outlook appears to be for the future."
The most significant difference for most of the returning Soldiers is more interactions with the local people this time around. Due to security concerns, most Soldiers were not able to get out and talk to the people in Kosovo during their previous mission.
Ten years ago, as an enlisted Soldier, in the Vertical Platoon, Capt. Mark L. Topp, Jamestown, N.D., built protective bunkers and military offices. Now, as civil military operations officer with MNBG-E, he is building relationships with local municipalities and schools by facilitating infrastructure improvements.
"I enjoy this deployment much more, because of the involvement with local nationals," Topp said. "I have the opportunity to work in communities and see more of the culture, while making a difference for people in Kosovo."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16