Kosovo: On The Ground

Compiled by R. R. Keene - Originally published August 1999

The Quick, Deadly Trip to Kosovo

Gun battles in late June between members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and agitators came two weeks after Marines prepared to go ashore from the USS Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, afloat in the Adriatic Sea off the troubled Balkans.

In that time they demonstrated that the Marine Corps doctrine of training leatherneck units to be special operations capable in multiple missions, and that being prepared to rapidly deploy from the sea and immediately conduct land operations is not only valid, but also necessary in a world where crisis situations rapidly get out of hand.

The appearance of Marines off foreign shores still signals America's willingness to efficiently conduct serious and dangerous military operations. Although the MEU itself is small, with approximately 2,000 Marines, it is nearly self-sustainable. More importantly, it is feared and alarms potential foes because the MEU heralds the potential to use the full might of America's military arsenal to back it in completing its appointed missions.

For two weeks, leathernecks of the MEU in the Balkans demonstrated most of these capabilities. The following overview was excerpted, in part, from the MEU's Web site, established for families and friends. What it does not mention and only implies is the tremendous preparation and work that went into the Marines' mission.

On June 8, the 26th MEU prepared to go ashore from the amphibious landing helicopter ship USS Kearsarge (LHD3), landing platform dock USS Ponce (LPD-15), and the landing ship dock USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44). They were to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's multinational peacekeeping force and act as an enabling force, thus becoming the first American forces to enter the Kosovo region.

On the morning of June 10, the MEU began landing operations from USS Kearsarge, and Marines came across Litohoro Beach in Greece. Their orders were to move north into Macedonia and become part of the multinational peacekeeping force there, with British, French and Italian troops already in Skopje.

Meanwhile, the MEU's Internet Web site asked families to be patient "as the process may take several days.... So keep the cards and letters coming."

By June 12, Marines were near Skopje establishing a forward support base and providing security with forces from five other nations.

On June 13, the first yellow bags of mail arrived from home, but members of 3d Battalion Landing Team, Eighth Marine Regiment, the MEU's combat element, had to read their letters on the move as they crossed into Kosovo, greeted by cheering onlookers and showered with flowers.

They took up positions near the town of Gnjilane in southwest Kosovo on June 15 and set up a forward operating base. The weather was in the high 80s and low 60s. A day earlier, members of Company L, 3/8 found an hour to play football. Most, however, sipped bottled water and tried the latest variations of Meals, Ready to Eat: Thai chicken, beef and mushrooms, meat loaf, turkey with potatoes, or pork chops.

Leathernecks of the MEU Service Support Group still in Skopje, who provide the bullets, bandages and beans essential for success, worked around the clock on June 17 to ensure supplies flowed continuously to Gnjilane. At the same time, Marines of the MEU's aviation combat element went to work building an expeditionary airfield, on what became known as Camp Able Sentry, from where the gunships and helicopters of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 would operate.

By June 19, the Marines were getting used to their new digs near Gnjilane and were visited by Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who praised the MEU for its part in the operation. In the days previous, members of the BLT had taken up posts in the local towns and villages and were conducting patrols as peace enforcers. They had also seized more than 100 weapons, grenades and munitions from the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian Army. Many, however, again waited for the mail to catch up with them.

The mail was coming in at a pleasantly steady flow by June 21, and with it came the first hot meals since they left the ships. The leathernecks continued to patrol the surrounding areas. Colonel Kenneth J. Gueck Jr., 26th MEU commander, ordered all Marines and sailors within Kosovo to increase their alertness and ensure that everyone wore all their protective equipment.

It paid off. Dawn on June 23 greeted Marines with temperatures in the mid50s, a stiff wind and a chill factor that made it seem colder. The cold was accompanied by frequent thunderstorms, causing the infantryman's old nemesis-- mud. Nonetheless, most kept busy improving their defensive positions throughout the sector and providing security to returning refugees. That evening things got hot, and the Marines shot it out with several people south of Gnjilane.

"Perhaps the message `It is never wise to tangle with Marines...,' quoted in the news from an unnamed Pentagon source, will spread around Kosovo quickly," was opined and posted by the 26th MEU on the Internet.

Apparently, would-be gunmen did not get the word. It got hot again on June 25 when Marines fought off a second attack by gunmen, killing one. The 26th MEU reminded friends and relatives on the Internet, "Remember, our mission is to act as peacekeepers and peace enforcers in an area that has been in desperate need of our presence. We are doing our mission well and safely."

It was also the day they enjoyed showers, fresh bread and Pepsi Cola.

On June 27, as leathernecks helped to put out a fire in a house, a Marine was slightly injured when a fragment of wall was kicked up from a sniper's bullet.

In a little more than two weeks, the 26th MEU had leapfrogged its way far beyond the littorals of the Balkans, and although it came in unopposed, it came in ready, meaning business and well ahead of the U.S. mail.

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