More than 400 Minnesota soldiers in Kosovoby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
More than 400 soldiers from the Minnesota Army National Guard are part of NATO peace-keeping efforts in Kosovo, the region of southern Serbia that declared its independence Sunday.
The 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry is based in Mankato but includes soldiers from around the southern part of the state.
Their commander told reporters Monday morning that things are mostly calm where they are, which was reassuring to soldiers' families back home.
St. Paul, Minn. — Sue Vander Hook says her son is one of those who "sometimes [gets] kind of lost over there because it's so peaceful."
Her son Jared is a gunner with the Guard in Kosovo (a gunner who's never had to use his gun). And while it has been relatively peaceful, this weekend's declaration of independence and celebrations did make Vanderhook's mother a little nervous.
"It's been a little tense, but I think we've been more tense than he has," Vander Hook quipped. "He tries to keep us from being worried, but at one point they were ready to go. They got dressed in the middle of the night and were ready to roll if they needed to.
"But it was mostly because of the celebrations that were going on and they wanted to make sure if they got out of hand they were ready to go. But he has stayed put and they haven't called him out."
Still, being up all night gave Jared some quality emailing time to keep in touch with his family back home in North Mankato. He even got to talk to his young son over an online video conference call.
Vander Hook's commander, Lt. Colonel Michael Funk, told reporters Monday morning that it's 'calm but tense' where they are, adding there's no indication that their area will become violent.
One of the task force's major missions will be protecting the minority Serbs from possible retaliation by the majority Albanians who were subjected to ethnic cleansing when Slobodan Milosevich ruled Serbia.
"The best way to handle the fears of the minority community is to develop strong relationships with the members of the minority community, and develop a bond of trust with them," Funk said. "And they will know that we're there to make sure they live in a safe environment.
"And the soldiers from Minnesota have done a very good job of that."
That mission is a reversal from an earlier one, according to Nick Hayes, a history professor and expert on the Balkans at St. John's University.
Just last decade, NATO bombing was aimed at the Serbs. Now that they're a minority in a newly declared country, NATO has to protect them.
Hayes says he doesn't expect the situation to escalate to a full-blown war, and agrees that Minnesota soldiers are relatively safe.
"They are in an overwhelmingly Albanian area that's been pacified for a long time, and one wouldn't anticipate anything that would put them in jeopardy or involve them in conflicts, other than maybe very routine maintenance of civil order," he said.
The hot-spot, says Hayes, is to the north, in a city called Mitrovica. It's a city that's physically divided between Serbs and Albanians. Col. Funk says it's possible some Minnesota soldiers could be sent up there if problems arose, but he says they're ready.
A number of the soldiers in the unit were actually deployed to Kosovo a few years ago and there were some riots during that tour. As a result, Funk says the soldiers asked for and got more training in riot and crowd control.
For the Vander Hooks in North Mankato, they're keeping an eye on the news and waiting for Jared to quell their fears with his updates.
"We read on the Internet about all the things going on and it sounds like things could erupt," Sue Vander Hook said. "It's kind of a split decision between the international community as to whether they want to accept Kosovo as an independent nation or not.
"But so far it sounds like things are going to be on the communicating and talking level, rather than the fighting level."
The soldiers are scheduled to return to Minnesota this summer after their year-long tour of duty and at this point there's no indication that the weekend's events will change that. But as Colonel Funk noted, that decision is one for people a few pay grades higher than his.
- All Things Considered, 02/18/2008, 5:19 p.m.