Stung by the death of an experienced American sergeant and the loss of six other NATO soldiers, the Pentagon has launched an energetic new effort to protect troops from the hazards of land mines and unexploded munitions in Bosnia.
Army officials have begun scouring depots and private manufacturers in search of new protective tools. And they are scrambling to procure thousands of protective Kevlar blankets and armor kits, and to rush in robot mine sweepers and anti-mine rollers, commanders said Tuesday.
The mine issue has become so serious that the commander of NATO’s Bosnia peace force, U.S. Navy Adm. Leighton Smith, remarked in Washington last week that the area was “polluted” with mines. The United Nations has estimated there may be 6 million mines in Bosnia and Croatia.
The Pentagon’s latest push was a reaction, in part, to the death of veteran platoon Sgt. Donald A. Dugan, 38, who was killed Saturday when some kind of explosive device blew up after he found it along a Bosnian roadside. Three other U.S. soldiers have been wounded in mine incidents.
Initial reports that Dugan had stepped on a mine have been discounted, and officials in Washington and in Bosnia on Tuesday said that now they were not sure what had killed him. An investigation into the case is expected to be completed shortly.
“This was not an inexperienced soldier,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Howell Estes, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff operations directorate, said Tuesday at the Pentagon. “He had been around a long time. He knew the dangers. … There is something missing here.”
Estes said experienced soldiers know “you don’t pick up anything: this is part of the standard rules when you go into an area like this.”
As the probe continued, Estes said the United States is hurrying to bolster what officials had claimed was an already substantial program of anti-mine and antiexplosive training and gadgetry.
Estes said top Army commanders have asked their mine experts: “Is there anything … that might be out there with civilian companies, or maybe other countries, that we just aren’t aware of, that might be able to come help us with mine detection?”
U.S. equipment “is the best there is in the world,” he said. “But … we have learned in Bosnia, as we’ve learned in other places, that … (it’s) not 100 percent effective.”
As a result, Estes said, 10 more mine-rolling machines, designed to detonate mines with large rollers, are being sent to augment the 60 mine-rolling and -plowing machines already in Bosnia.
In addition, the Army is shipping eight more robotic systems that are designed to operate mine rollers and truck-sized mine sweepers by remote control.