The CULP team working in Macedonia made a visit June 8 to the largest U.S. base in the Balkans, Camp Bondsteel. We are a diverse group of Cadets and cadre from areas in California all the way to Vermont. This is the first time most of the Cadets have visited an oversea installation and we were met at the gate by Major Battle. We thought that ironic, as a major battle is the last thing U.S. troops under KFOR, the Kosovo Force arm of NATO, wish to see in the region. We learned the U.S. forces consist mainly of support units, namely the 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, which, according to Major Battle, serves to “measure the pulse of the region” and provide information “on the needs of the people.”
We were treated to breakfast upon arrival, which served as a needed respite from the cultural engagement of Macedonian cuisine. That need stemmed not from a dissatisfaction with the native cuisine, but rather to patch the ache of homesickness that accompanies deployed members of the armed forces. Interestingly enough, when breakfast was over many of us were calling for “shopska salad”, a famous regional dish consisting of tomato, cucumber, and some sort of cheese that always tastes delightful.
After breakfast, the brigade commander Col. “Chuck” Hensley answered our questions on everything from how he maintained a family, to what constituted leadership. Col. Hensley said that having a family back home can be hard in the military, but that it can also be an incredibly rewarding experience. He also stated that in his experience, being physically fit and demonstrating proficiency in the skills of an infantryman generated respect from his command. After this discussion several officers gave briefs on topics that gave insight into the mission in Kosovo. They also incorporated into their briefs advice and information on different paths we could take in our careers such as branching aviation, or working in military intelligence.
Upon conclusion of the briefs, we were treated to a general tour of the camp by Mrs. Hodges, affectionately known as the “Sheriff” of the installation. Mrs. Hodges took us through the fire station, the recreational center, the barracks, and the laundry room, as well as a riding tour that displayed the operational parts of the base, and places where portions of the base had been disassembled and the land returned to its owners. There was a small garden near the barracks that the “Sheriff” tends. She calls it her refuge from the soldiers and contractors. She also affectionately mentioned that she either cuts “dead head flowers or dead head people”; which demonstrates that she cares dearly about the base, and more importantly the many soldiers and civilians that call it home.
After our time with Mrs. Hodges we were treated to an aerial tour of the base via helicopter, which for many cadets, was their first ride in a Black Hawk. A special thanks to the pilots and crew for the roller coaster ride and the amazing views. In the distance we saw Mt. Duke, the American name for the largest mountain in Kosovo. The farmland surrounding the installation was breathtaking. No one can dispute the beauty of the Balkans, even the troops that live on the FOB, as several attested.
Following the helicopter ride, we were treated to a military police working dog demonstration where two of us, Cadets Burbey and Macdonald, were allowed to participate in the “aggression” portion of the event. The dogs were endearing and the cadre memorable.
We rounded out our time on post by engaging targets in the virtual shooting simulator, and finished up with a trip to the largest PX in South-Eastern Europe. In short, a trip that informed, enlightened, and entertained.