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Justin M. Stoddard

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That Which is Done is That Which Shall be Done
June 28, 2009 — 4:27 pm

I’ve been here before. Here in a metaphorical sense more than a physical reality. I spent nearly 12 months in 1995 and 1996 gearing up for a deployment to Bosnia/Herzegovina. You’ll recall the chaos and near anarchy that ruled the Balkans for the good part of 5 years. Slaughter, mayhem, torture, rape, genocide, all happening right at Europe’s back door.

When I finally did deploy, I went by myself rather than with the 20 person team I trained with. As a newly promoted Sergeant, I was to take charge of a liaison team representing the American forces in a Nordic/Polish battalion in Doboj, Bosnia. We were a four man team with extreme autonomy. We ran the mission the way we saw fit. As long as the higher-ups in Tuzla got their daily reports, we were left alone.

By the time we got there (about 3 months after the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, effectively ending the conflict) things had pretty much died down to a nice dull roar. Though I was never shot at, our team would go to sleep every night to the sound of automatic gunfire off in the distance. Occasionally a large explosion would occur nearby, prompting us to get into a convoy to investigate. I have pictures lying around here somewhere of a blown-up bridge. We arrived on the scene minutes after it happened.

That’s not to say there weren’t moments of sheer terror. When two Serbian MIGS buzzed our camp so close I could see the pilots in their cockpits, I was almost sure it was the end for me as I was caught out in the open, walking from the barracks to my office. Apparently that was a game the Serbian air force liked to play. That particular incident locked half the country down and communiques were sent assuring those in charge that if that were to occur again, said planes would be blown from the sky.

Doom gripped me twice more with its icy fingers during my stay. Once, while convoying from Doboj to Tuzla, we were waved over by a Swedish soldier to provide assistance to a young woman who stepped on a landmine. By the time we walked up to the scene, a very large and angry crowd had gathered, looking upon the two dismembered bodies and one (amazingly) slightly injured woman the landmine had claimed. One tends not to process these horrendous events as they are happening, as you’re too busy just reacting. Reacting to the decapitated body of what looked like a young man in his twenties and his friend/brother/cousin? lying still next to him, peaceful in death, no obvious injuries. The sharp and stunning contrast between the two was what struck at me. They were a literal false dichotomy.

This fantastic juxtaposition was so unnerving to me, so curious, so odd that I failed to notice an ugly turn in the crowd around me. They began to look upon us with accusing eyes. They shrieked and hollered and gestured threateningly. No one took charge, the leadership around me was frozen in uncertainly. Someone attempted to assist the poor woman with her wound but was violently rebuffed. Though we had weapons, we were outnumbered at least ten to one. Finally, a Bosnian linguist from our group spoke up. Whatever he said assuaged the crowd long enough for us to get back into our convoy and drive on.

Youthful swagger got the best of me the next time doom and I met. I volunteered for a foot patrol of the demilitarized zone that served to separate the Serbian and Muslim populations in Bosnia. To this day I have no idea why I did this. I have never experienced that crushing feeling of loneliness at that level since. We were an 8 man squad, roaming about with no immediate support or heavy weapons. You cannot imagine to what extent your senses spike in a situation like that. It’s literally exhausting.

Between the moments of sheer excitement and utter boredom, there was the absurd and bizarre. On New Years Eve 1997, I found myself in the square of our camp watching and listening to the reverie surrounding us. In this case, the celebration consisted of the Bosnians shooting automatic weapons/anti aircraft weapons into the sky. The arch of the tracers was an amazing thing to behold. Literally tens of thousands of rounds curving above us, leaving a trail of bright green and red as the prosperous burned off each one. Accentuate that with the occasional grenade/RPG explosion and you have yourself one hell of a celebration. I’ll never understand, to my dying day, why I was outside watching all of this happen. Though it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, it was, and still remains the most dangerous and asininely stupid things I have ever done.

We had a nice rivalry with our foreign partners, namely the Finns, Poles, Swedes, Nords and Danes. Once, I was able to procure a plastic viking helmet with horns. After a briefing I was able to entertain our counterparts with a complete Swedish Chef imitation. Now, in my humble opinion, I do a pretty good Swedish Chef. But, in this case, the Swedes were more bemused than amused at the attempt. More than anything, they wanted me to know that “Swedes don’t talk like that. We don’t go around saying Bork Bork Bork”. Win one for the Americans, I say.

There’s so much more to mention about my experiences in Bosnia and what I’ve learned afterwords. And, this brings me back to my original point. I’ve been here before. Now that I find myself ramping up for a stint in Afghanistan, Bosnia is more and more on my mind. I’m older, now. Thirteen years have passed. I have two daughters to think of. Demise weighs heavier on the mind at 37 than it did at 23.

I’m also no longer part of the military structure. I’m a civilian, now. I have no idea how that will affect my experiences.

And yet, this time, technology is on my side. I’ll have daily internet connectivity, assuring a steady stream of communication between me and family/friends. I hear Skype is the big thing over there. Also, I have an iPod full of so much music/movies/TV shows, I’ll never get through them in a four month period.

So, yeah, these are the things I’m thinking of. I’ve been here before. I wonder if I’ll be here again somewhere down the road. In a metaphorical sense, of course.

Me, circa 1996 in Doboj, Bosnia:

Just Doing My Time

— Justin M. StoddardComments (1)

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1 Comment
  1. I think it was just a dichotomy. It doesn’t really sound false…

    Comment by Eric D. Dixon — June 28, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

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