by Keith Nordstrom
BY CRAIG BORGES / SUN CHRONICLE STAFF
ON THE KOSOVO/MACEDONIA
BORDER - Sean Hawkins is rather relaxed for a guy who spent
much of this past winter camping out in the mountains of
southeast Kosovo searching for ethnic Albanian rebels smuggling
arms from Macedonia.
And a report about some
fellow U.S. soldiers being fired upon hours earlier, possibly
by such rebels further north along Kosovo's border with
Serbia, doesn't stir the Norfolk, resident much either.
But that's just how all
the guys in his Army unit, the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne
Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, are --
laidback, polite and reserved.
On this chilly Friday evening
the regiment, led by Lt. Col. Brian Owens, is high above
the rest of southern Kosovo on a mountainside near the small
town of Debelde. The spot is accessible only a ribbon-thin,
crater-filled dirt road, complete with hairpin curves that
come perilously close to sheer drops that begin where the
The bone-jarring ride to
the spot takes more than 25 minutes. The view from above
is spectacular. Lush green covers the mountains. Quaint,
old villages dot the landscape.
If someone had told Hawkins
a few years ago that he would one day be on such a mission
in the war-ravaged Balkans, he would have laughed, he says.
"No way. I never thought
I'd be doing something like this," he says.
But here he is. After attending
Wheaton College in Norton, for two years, he quit.
"That's one expensive
school," he says. "It was great but I just couldn't
swing it financially."
That's when the 23-year-old
son of Norfolk resident Guinevere Freemont-Smith turned
to the Army.
Hawkins, a Sharon, Mass.,
High School grad who has five younger sisters and two younger
brothers, knew his mother, as a single-mom, could never
afford to send him to college.
His unit leaves Kosovo in
June. He says he plans on attending the University of Massachusetts
in Boston to major in sociology when his time in the service
is up in a year.
"I'll get money for
tuition from the Army," he says. "Every little
bit will help."
Hawkins got his first taste
of the military as a member of the Army Reserves, serving
with the 368th Engineer Combat Battalion based in Attleboro,
"I liked that so I
decided to go in fulltime," he says. "And I joined
infantry because I figured that's where the fun is."
This "fun" Hawkins speaks of consists of trekking
up steep mountainsides dressed in full battle gear while
carrying 100-pounds of supplies and weaponry. It includes
sleeping on snow-covered grounds for a few hours a night
in between trying to flush out rebel fighters insistent
on spreading the Balkan conflict into Macedonia.
The mission on this particular
evening is designed to keep the rebels, most of whom are
with the National Liberation Army, the strongest rebel group
to rise since the war ended and the Kosovo Liberation Army
dismantled, off balance, Lt. Col. Owens says.
The mission consists of
sending mortar rounds of flares into the sky to light up
trails leading down from a mountainside opposite the soldiers'
position to a valley below. The trails are used by rebels
to transport arms into Kosovo and as a way of moving about
the heavily-patrolled sector into Macedonia to take on the
Macedonian police and soldiers on the other side of the
ridge of a facing mountain.
The long-standing conflict
became full-scale battle in March and has already cost many
lives including those of Macedonian soldiers, rebels and
an Associated Press journalist.
While some members of the
325th fire the mortar rounds at Owens' command, others,
like Hawkins, search the thick woods below with night-vision
goggles and other instruments. Far overhead, unseen and
unheard, helicopters also view the lighted ground below.
After setting coordinates,
the unit is ready. They wait quietly for nightfall, the
setting sun providing the finishing touch to the surrounding
At 9 p.m., Owens begins
issuing his commands.
"Fire," he says
to a three-man unit surrounding the mortar.
A sharp boom shatters the
silent night and then silence again. Seconds pass and suddenly
a pinkish, orange burst of light illuminates the pitch-dark
valley below. Another round is fired, then another, then
Across the valley and below,
the woods light up in a pink glow. The tiny dirt trails,
known as donkey trails because both farmers and rebels use
donkeys to transport goods stand out. Anyone moving up or
down the trails will be seen.
The firing continues for about a half hour. In all, 120
rounds are set off.
Owens says he likes to compare
the overall work of the Army in Kosovo to a spider web.
Yes, he says, the rebels could wait until his soldiers depart
and then use the trails. But that's unlikely.
"It sets them off balance,"
he says. "A spider web has holes but when insects fly
into it, they usually get trapped. Think of this as one
thread of a spider web. It keeps the NLA guessing. They
don't know where we're going to be next or what we're going
to do. They don't know if the lights will be real rounds
This mission, he says, combined
with numerous other things going on on the ground and in
the air, combine to make it ever more difficult to move
arms through the area.
Joining Hawkins on the mountainside
is Owens' driver, Specialist Sean Flynn of Newport, R.I.
The former Pawtucket, R.I.,
resident has many Attleboro-area connections. His fiancée,
Kimberly Myer, has a lot of family in Taunton, he says,
and his mother, Charlotte Flynn of Myrtle Beach, S.C., is
a North Attleboro, native. His father, John D. Flynn, lives
At 31, Flynn is rather old
to be a specialist. But that's because he didn't join the
army until he was 29. "They called me grandpa at basic
training," he says, laughing.
His goal is to be a police
officer. He got a taste of that life as a corrections officer
at the corrections facility in Central Falls, R.I.
"I figure the Army
will help me later in my career as a police officer,"
he says. "You can't beat this type of training. It's
something I'll never forget, that's for sure."
"Roger to that,"
Hawkins says, flashing a smile in the fading light. "How
could anyone ever forget this?"