Camp Bondsteel A Small City
Photos by Keith Nordstrom

OPERATION KOSOVO
BY CRAIG BORGES / SUN CHRONICLE STAFF

CAMP BONDSTELL, Kosovo - A soldier's life at Camp Bondsteel isn't easy, but it could be worse.

The base, which serves as headquarters for U.S. military operations in Kosovo, is really a tiny city, providing housing, food, medical and just about every other service for more than 2,500 soldiers and 2,000 civilian contract workers, many of them Brown & Root workers, the Texas firm that built the base.

Army tents are few with most soldiers living in heated seahuts with hot showers and bathroom facilities close by.
There is a movie theater that shows two films nightly; a gym that stays open 23 hours a day; two vast mess halls that offer a variety of meals and include salad and dessert bars; a cappuccino bar run by local Kosovars; a pizzeria; a Burger King; seven-day laundry services; a PX looks more like a Kmart; a chapel; a continuing education center; a post office and the best hospital in Kosovo.

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Life at Bondsteel wasn't always this good. When U.S. troops first moved into the area after driving Serb troops back to Serbia following a 78-day air war in 1999, there was nothing at this spot but grass, and lots of it.

The first troops to arrive formed a circle with tanks and erected tents on the lush grass in the center. Since than the base has grown to cover 900 acres of former agricultural land, surrounded completely by high metal fences topped with razor wire. It is the largest U.S. military camp since Da Nang in Vietnam.

Sgt 1st Class Brian Thomas says the Army learned a lesson from when it set up shop at Camp McGovern near Brcko in Bosnia after the war there ended in 1995.

"Those guys were living in mud and wet tents for a long time," he says. "The Army didn't want a repeat of that. They had a motto, 'soldiers in seahuts in 90 days' and they kept to that vow."

The long, brown seahuts contain several housing units that house five to six soldiers each.

"They dug their own wells when they came in and set up their own power plants," Thomas, a public affairs officer at the camp, says of the soldiers who built it. "It's pretty amazing that they pulled this off so quickly."

The major problem now, he says, is mud because all of the roads lack asphalt.

"They didn't want to put asphalt down because it infers permanence," he says. "But they're now planning to do it because when it rains, all this dirt just turns to muck."

Most soldiers stationed here, including those with the U.S. Army Reserve's 399th Combat Support Hospital out of Taunton, work 12-hour shifts.

One way to kill time once work is through is by taking classes at the continuing education center. The center is run by the University of Maryland and City College of Chicago and offers a wide variety of classes, all free of charge for soldiers.

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Sports play a big role in the life of soldiers stationed at Bondsteel. Soccer fields and volleyball courts are often full and the gym, a vast warehouse-type building that includes a basketball court and all the newest exercise equipment, is jammed in the late afternoon.

Alcohol is prohibited on base, but the cappuccino bar takes the place of the local pub. Soldiers, their M16s resting by their side, hang out there for hours, sipping double mochas and other sweet drinks while discussing the day's events.