In Harms Way
Photos by Keith Nordstrom

OPERATION KOSOVO
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 road ends.

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, Mass.

"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 natural masterpiece.

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 another.

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 next time."

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 in Newport.

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?"