Operation Kosovo
photos by Keith Nordstrom


CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo - The hate and mistrust between ethnic Albanians and Serbians astounds many here, even those soldiers who have made the conflict between Kosovo and it's dominate neighbor, Serbia, their focal point of study for the past six months.

But tucked away in a jumble of tents and makeshift buildings here at Camp Bondsteel, ethnic barriers fall and hatred, like a heavy and tattered overcoat that has long slipped out of fashion, is checked at the door, hopefully for good.

This is Task Force Medical Falcon, a field hospital at Camp Bondsteel that has been run by the U.S. Army Reserve's 399th Combat Support Hospital out of Taunton, since March.
Here, all are treated equally - ethnic Albanians and Serbs alike. Albanian is spoken here, as is Serbo-Croatian. Here there is no time or room for things like Balkan politics, Balkan revenge or Balkan history.

Danica Nikolic, a Serb from the Kosovo town of Riniluk, knows this first hand as does Adem Zeka, an ethnic Albanian from the village of Begunc, near the municipality of Vitina.

Misfortune has brought both people here, Nikolic, for her 11-year-old daughter Sanja, who suffered an appendicitis attack late Friday night, and Zeka, for his 11-year-old nephew Pajtim, who underwent an operation to correct a colon defect he has suffered with since birth.

"There is no difference here," Mrs. Nikolic says in Serbo-Croatian through a translator, her hands gesturing to Zeka and his nephew. "That boy, my daughter, they are both innocent of the horrible things that were done. Hopefully we'll get together and forget all the bad things. Children aren't guilty."

The physicians responsible for making these two children right again included Maj. J.C. Cortiella, who as a civilian works at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Maj. .Tim Counihan, also of the UMass Medical Center, and Maj. Thomas Cataldo, a Worcester native who now works in New Jersey. All are members of the 399th.

"We are pleased, very lucky to have this happen," Zeka, Pajtim's uncle, says in Albanian through the translator. "The boy lived on only juices for 10 years. He could not defecate because it was so painful. He is fine now. The doctors here made this possible."

This was the second operation for Pajtim. Kosovar doctors in Pristina carried out the first, which consisted of putting the boy on a colostomy bag. But even basics are difficult to get here in the ruins that are Kosovo. Finding the bags the boy needed, proved nearly impossible for his family. That's when a KFOR civil affairs officer who had met the family, made the operation at Bondsteel possible.

Under KFOR rules, civilians can be treated at the camp hospital only if there is a threat to life, limb or eyesight, so civilians tend to be a small part of who the unit here works on.

U.S. soldiers and those from other KFOR nations are the most common patients.


It's early Sunday evening and the word is passed down - a chopper is coming in with a shooting victim. Initial reports indicate a Serb soldier has been shot in the back.

The 399th members swing into action.

Drs. Cataldo, Counihan, Cortiella, along with the Boston Celtics' doctor, Col. Arnold Scheller and Norfolk, doctor, Col. Gregory Quick, get ready.

EMTs, nurses and technicians prepare the emergency and operating rooms.

Within 15 minutes the whir of a UH60 Blackhawk medical helicopter is heard and suddenly appears overhead, it's heavy blades causing a mini windstorm on the ground as the pilot brings eases it onto a landing pad opposite the hospital's front doors.

Three EMTs and a translator don headphones and run in, crouching to escape the powerful gusts caused by the chopper's blades. They pull a bright orange stretcher carrying a large blondish man from the 'copter's back bay and rush back under the spinning blades, off the pad and in through the ER's swinging doors.

Inside, doctors, nurses and EMTs surround the man, shouting orders and working frantically to stabilize him. The front of his t-shirt is blotted with blood.

Moments later X-ray technician, Specialist Faith Patterson of Dorchester, rushes into the ER. Doctors order a chest x-ray on the spot. She carries out the order with a portable x-ray machine and then the man is rolled across the hall to be operated on.


Hours later, Army investigators report the man wasn't a soldier, but a Serb civilian. He had been shot twice in the upper body while sitting in a restaurant called Café 99 in the city of Vitina, east of Camp Bondsteel. The man, investigators said, jumped on his bike and peddled a short distance to a Serb church being guarded by soldiers in the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. They got him to the help he needed. Investigators suspect an ethnic Albanian did the shooting.

But these are details few care at the 399th care about. A shooting victim is a shooting victim. They announce his condition, critical but stable.


It's Saturday night and a Spanish Army ambulance speeds into Bondsteel. Inside, three Spanish soldiers sit dazed, victims of an SUV rollover somewhere in the countryside.

Spanish Army nurses Ana Castro Marquez and Maria Garcia Vergara, with the help of two burly ambulance drivers, rush the soldiers in to a waiting Col. Quick.

Quick goes to work, evaluating each man for broken bones or concussion. Later, he reports they suffer only bumps and bruises.

Col. Quick, a former ER doctor at Norwood Hospital, is quiet and reserved. He welcomes the opportunity to discuss the work the 399th is doing. He says he prefers it, in fact, over talk about the number of soldiers and rebels the 399th has had to patch up, or see die, since arriving.

Anyone suffering life-threatening injuries in the American Sector usually ends up at Bondsteel.

So far the 399th has seen it's share of bloodshed, ranging from British soldiers killed and wounded in a helicopter crash as well as a landmine explosion, to ethnic Albanian rebels shot during confrontations with both U.S. soldiers and troops from other armies.

But the how and why behind the injuries don't interest him. It's ER work and the team here is excellent at it, he says.

"It's fun, exciting," he says. "There's plenty to do, but it's not like an ER in the United States. There's not that steady stream of people coming in. It comes in spurts. We can be flat out and jammed in here, then it will be quiet for hours on end."

Quick's wife Kitty, a former Foxboro, resident, works as a nurse at Fuller Hospital in South Attleboro. The Norfolk couple has three children, 21-year-old Katie, 17-year-old Pattie and 11-year-old James.

Being away from his family is difficult, he says, but e-mail has made the separation so much easier.

"Technology has really changed things like this in so many ways," he says. "Digital photos, emails, phone lines. It's a big difference from years ago."

Quick's family has practice, too. Quick much of last year much further away from them than Kosovo, serving as a doctor for Raytheon scientist working in Antarctica.

He says his family doesn't necessarily his overseas adventures, but knows it's his job, his passion.
Quick says the thing he finds most interesting about his stint here is being able to work with multinational physicians.

"It's so international here. It's very appealing," he says. "You've got Greek, Australians, Russians, Poles, so many different groups that make it so interesting."


Getting a better appreciation for different cultures is something Maj. Gloria Vignone enjoys about her stint here in Kosovo.

Vignone, who is charge of the wound care center at Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, leads the Intermediate Care Ward here at Bondsteel. Her job, she says, is to mentor enlisted soldiers.

The Johnston, R.I., resident has been with the 399th for 12 years. She says the work here can be excessive - 12-hour days, six to seven days a week, but it has given her a new appreciation of all that she has in the United States.

"It's sad out here, really," she says. "The people have nothing and we have so much."

Copyright 2001
The Sun Chronicle