By Capt. Jason Sweeney (Army National Guard)June 2, 2018
PRISTINA, Kosovo -- Ethnic conflict in Kosovo between Kosovar-Albanians and Kosovar-Serbians has left deep wounds. U.S. Soldiers are deployed to Kosovo to ensure peace is maintained between the two groups.
Interestingly, the commander of the current U.S. Army rotation in Kosovo is Col. Nick Ducich who is Serbian-American. On his brigade staff is Capt. Gent Kepuska who is an Albanian-American from Kosovo.
Ducich's heritage and his position as commander of Multi-National Battle Group -- East has attracted media attention, especially in Serbia.
Kepuska said his own background has attracted interest with the Kosovar-Albanians he interacts with in his position in the Multi-National Battle Group -- East effects cell, which requires him to establish relationships with leaders in the Kosovo Security Force, Kosovo Police and Kosovo's government institutions.
Over the past few weeks, Kepuska has been part of a U.S Army team that advises the Centre for University Studies in Pristina, Kosovo, on the training of Kosovo Security Force cadets.
"He's contributing to the development and standards of Kosovo," said Kosovo Security Force Capt. Vegim Krelani, commander of the Centre for University Studies. Krelani added that Kepuska's heritage and the fact that he speaks Albanian means they have much in common. "We talk about food, culture and tradition. He can live them here."
Kepuska said he thinks his heritage and that of Col. Ducich give them a unique perspective on their deployment to Kosovo.
"Both of us have never lost connection to our homelands," Kepuska said. "Above and beyond that, he and I both share a certain amount of love for the region and a desire to see it succeed."
In the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, ethnic conflict between Kosovar-Serbians and Kosovar-Albanians erupted into war. U.S. Soldiers were deployed to Kosovo in 1999 under the authority of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, which created the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR).
Today, almost two decades after the creation of KFOR, Kosovo is still resolving ethnic grievances that date back decades, even centuries.
KFOR's Multi-National Battle Group -- East is led by the U.S. Army National Guard and is tasked to maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for the people of Kosovo. This is the 24th rotation of U.S. troops into Kosovo.
"I can certainly state this is different than my past deployments," Kepuska said. "I think I'm able to grasp some of the nuances of the region and culture quickly. And it's easy to be all-in on the mission because I clearly believe in it on a personal level, as well as a professional level."
Kepuska was born in Pristina. He moved to the U.S. when he was 11 months old while his father was studying at Clemson University as a Fulbright Scholar. The break-up of Yugoslavia disrupted the family's planned return to Kosovo and they eventually settled in the Boston area.
"Albanian culture was part of my upbringing," Kepuska said. "I'm fluent in what's called kitchen Albanian, the day-to-day language you use with family as opposed to formal or technical language you wouldn't use interacting with family members."
When he was a teenager, the war broke out in Kosovo and several members of his extended family fled to the U.S. as refugees.
"I lived in a house full of extended family who were in the U.S. on refugee status, having to share a room--it was an interesting experience."
After high school, Kepuska attended Clemson, but took time off after his freshman year. After an extended absence, he returned to Clemson with renewed focus and joined the ROTC program.
"I joined the Army a little later in life, but always had an interest since about high school. At first, it was from a sense of responsibility having become a naturalized citizen at 18, and obviously there's the influence of NATO's involvement in Kosovo."
Kepuska explained that Albanian culture played a role in his decision to join the Army.
"You do have this sense that you're responsible and beholden to more than just your immediate family. That, combined with the sense that we as a people are beholden to the United States, I chose to go into the ROTC program. Once I got into ROTC, I found that I had a calling to the military separate from that sense of obligation. The actual act of leadership, the structure of the military, the values that were espoused and demonstrated at the best of times, were things that resonated with me."
After graduating from Clemson with a computer science degree and earning his Army commission, he served on drilling status as a signal officer in the U.S. Army Reserve.
He deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, returned to his civilian job, and deployed again in 2013 to the Horn of Africa.
In November 2016, he was picked up for a yearlong rotation at Fort Bliss, Texas, with the 5th Armor Brigade working as an exercise plans officer for Task Force Warhawg, which conducts validation exercises for deploying units. That year, Task Force Warhawg conducted a validation exercise for the Arkansas National Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which was deploying to Kosovo.
The unit scheduled to replace the 39th the following year was the California National Guard's 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, commanded by Ducich. Due to Kepuska's background and knowledge of Kosovo, Task Force Warhawg commander Lt. Col. Rob Paolucci contacted Ducich and told him about Kepuska. Ducich thought Kepuska would be a good fit and picked him up for the Kosovo deployment.
What's it like being an Albanian-American captain working for a Serbian-American colonel while deployed to Kosovo?
"It's actually been a lot of fun," Kepuska said. "It's definitely been interesting. Col. Ducich is a consummate professional."
Kepuska said he thinks his Kosovar-Albanian heritage gives him advantages when it comes to his job in the brigade's effects cell.
"My background allows me to generally be able to engage and connect with individuals much more quickly than the more deliberate cultivation of a personal connection would take. I can skip several steps and go straight to having something in common, and moving on from there instead of having to develop a certain level of rapport before we can move on to more difficult topics."
Due to his background, he said he makes an effort to remain aware of possible biases he might have, and of the need to ensure they don't color his opinions when it comes to official matters.
He added that his parents are proud that he's serving in Kosovo and in the U.S. Army.
"Obviously, my mother worries about the combat zones I get deployed to and the strain deployments put on the body, and, of course, on my marriage. Generally, my parents have been proud of the life choices and accomplishments I've made. And certainly, they're happy that I'm having the opportunity to be part of KFOR, since it's a unique circumstance given our ties to the history of the region."
Almost three months into the deployment with six months to go, Kepuska said so far his time in Kosovo has been rewarding.
"I really would love to be able to look back at my deployment and say that Col. Ducich and I have provided an example, and that we have successfully engaged the institutions and the people of Kosovo to reach beyond ethnic conflict and move forward as a multiethnic, multicultural country."