December 25, 1997 in Nation/World

The Gift Of Peace On A Lonely Night A Long Way From Home, U.S. Soldiers Stand Guard Over A Nation’s Only Hope Christmas In Bosnia

By The Spokesman-Review
 

It’s Christmas Eve, but Kelly Reid doesn’t want to think about it.

His boots and pants are muddy. It’s cold and gray, and Reid blows into his hands to keep them warm.

He’s standing guard at the entrance to a U.S. military base in Bosnia where he and other members of the Army Reserve run a hospital.

Reid’s job is to make sure nothing gets in the front gate that isn’t supposed to. Today, however, he slips up.

Past the concertina wire and the watch towers, past the barricades and armed guards, Christmas found its way into Reid’s head and the base he’s guarding - Christmas and the hope for a country that’s been one of the most hopeless places on Earth.

Reid is 28 years old and from Coeur d’Alene. He’s one of 8,000 American soldiers helping keep the peace in Bosnia, a region torn by war and ethnic fighting.

Two years after the war ended, Bosnia still is littered with millions of land mines, cities still lie in ruin and more than a million Bosnians still wait to go home.

But there is hope. The mines are being removed, crushed buildings are shrugging off ruin and rising anew and some refugees are returning home.

For many Bosnians, there also is hope in the presence of American soldiers - they bring peace.

It is in this country that Reid and 11 other Army reservists from Spokane, North Idaho and Eastern Washington are spending Christmas. They are part of the 396th Combat Support Hospital, based on the outskirts of Tuzla.

The hospital is inside a base where everyone wears green and everyone carries a pistol or a rifle. The work is constant, the days can be long and repetitive.

But it is Christmas Eve and the repetition will be broken. Staff at the hospital plan to exchange gifts and sing carols at a party.

But that must wait. Earlier in the afternoon, a young soldier was brought into the hospital from an automobile accident. His injuries are bad enough that he is being sent to a hospital in Germany. Around the time the Christmas party is supposed to start, a helicopter lands outside.

The emergency room is filled with the sound of the chopper’s blades and the soldier’s cries of pain as he is prepared for the trip. Two hospital staff members, dressed as Santa, mill in the hallway.

When another patient is rushed into the ER, one of the Santas - Sgt. 1st Class Kay Mayo - holds the IV bags. It will be an hour before things are calm enough to start the party.

It is held in a tent next to the hospital. They play tapes of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” and the song where dogs bark out “Jingle Bells.” Gold garlands hang from the walls. In one corner, Maj. Andrew Cramer, a surgeon from Portland, is making lattes on a tiny espresso maker.

“We’re a Northwest unit, so we got to have our coffee,” Cramer says.

About 60 soldiers sit on wooden benches and listen to the Christmas songs, speeches from their commanders and a reading from the gospels. Then it’s time for the gifts. Santa enters packing a 9mm pistol on the outside of his red suit.

He brings in wrapped presents that are part of an anonymous gift exchange.

The gifts range from socks and candy, to darts and scarves, to almost X-rated presents that cause the crowd to roar with laughter. The celebration is more than just a party among co-workers. The people in this tent live together, eat together and work together. Some of them have known each other for more than a decade.

“I’ll always consider the reserves my second family,” says Staff Sgt. Paul Child, a registered nurse from Spokane.

After the party, the soldiers sing Christmas carols to a half-dozen patients. Later, one soldier dresses up as Santa and takes candy canes to the guards working in the cold, dark eve of Christmas.

Reid, exhausted from three days of guard duty, plans to go to bed early. But he admits he’s been thinking about more than protecting the base.

“I’ve been thinking about what I would be doing if I was home, talking with my family, sitting around watching TV,” he says.

Past the guards and the wire, Christmas has found its way.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SPECIAL REPORT Follow a group of Inland Northwest soldiers as they serve in NATO peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. See section E.

This sidebar appeared with the story: SPECIAL REPORT Follow a group of Inland Northwest soldiers as they serve in NATO peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. See section E.


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