Just over two years have passed since the nation of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Although the bloodiest moments of the conflict have passed, the United States military still maintains a peace-keeping presence in the nation, which had been under U.N. protection since 1999. Recently, the photographer Mitchell Kohler discovered that his home state of North Dakota was the lead state for the current rotation of troops in Kosovo, and he made arrangements to travel overseas, where he witnessed first-hand the daily challenges of soldiers living in a foreign land, and documented them in a series of vivid images.
"When I first heard that these North Dakota troops were going to Kosovo, I thought, good for them; they're going to a place that's safe," says Kohler. "After you get there, you find out that a lot of them kind of wish they did get sent to Afghanistan. They went through this same training that troops do to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, but then they get to Kosovo and it's a peace-keeping mission. It almost is more like a nine to five job in some aspects, so they just want to keep busy, more things to do to keep their minds off what they're missing.
"But I found that some troops have gone really above and beyond what's expected of them—in part so they can stay busy. Some of the troops help out with wrestling programs at local schools, some of the troops help teach kids English, and one girl I met helped clean up trash in areas of the local communities that are still in not very good shape after the wars. The troops are doing a lot of things besides what is expected of them."
What follows is a selection from Mitchell Kohler's "Kosovo," with captions by the photographer.
"On the 17th of February Kosovo celebrated it's 2nd anniversary of Independence. Everyday their gratitude towards Americans is on display but none more than on the 17th. The Stars and Stripes is flown just as much as the Albanian flag which is their main ethnicity or the Kosovo flag."
"During QRF exercises the soldiers that are chosen to portray the injured parties in the accident do everything as real as possible. Each soldier is assigned a certain type of injury and must be treated in the proper manner. From the poor road conditions to the crying out of an injured person the QRF is done to simulate real conditions."
"Soldiers that attend WLC are relieved of their regular duties for the two weeks the course lasts. They also move out of their normal housing and share rooms with other troops in the WLC program."
"The WLC is not a live fire training exercise. Instead blanks are used to help simulate carrying live ammunition and create as real an atmosphere as possible. Bright red or yellow plugs are attached to the end of each weapon for further safety."
"Some of the troops in Kosovo have gone above and beyond what is expected of them during their deployment. One of those soldiers is CPT Jake Larson from Warren, MN of the 957 engineers, Battle Group LMT. He helps out and trains with a local wrestling club in the town of Hani-i-Elizit."
"Two more of the soldiers that help out in the community are Spc. Dana Mcleod from Mandan, ND and SGT Dale Clemens from Noonan, ND both with the Liaison Monitoring Team (LMT). They spend an hour a week with up to 20 students ages eight to twelve teaching them the basics of the English language. Here SGT Clemens is pictured associating words with pictures to help the students better remember what they learn."
"The Liaison Monitoring Teams (LMT) were formed in Kosovo to go out into the community and visit with local leaders and citizens to better understand the needs of the populace. Kosovo is the first country where this has been tried and it has gone over with great success."
"While education is free in Kosovo the cost of getting to school is not. Many people in the rural areas, such as this father and son, can barely afford the bus ride that is needed. At up to 40 euro a month per student and with six children it is a burden he does not think he can afford much longer."
"Most of the NGO's have left Kosovo but one of them still operating is the Hazardous Areas Lifesaver Organization (HALO). At the end of hostilities in 1999 there were 18 de mining organizations in Kosovo but now HALO is the only one left. And even though in 2001 the United Nations declared Kosovo mine free HALO is still finding them to this day. They only operate in the Summer months but two of their employees are seen here taking a break from update meetings to prepare them for this year's work."
"In the years since the war many memorials and cemeteries have been built commemorating the loss of fellow neighbors and relatives. One never has to drive far to find another cemetery where the inhabitants all died in 1999."
"Military patrols in Kosovo, while still a regular site, are becoming less frequent as the role that our National Guard plays there goes from a more active to passive mission. These troops with the 231 Brigade Support Battalion used to engage the local population and look for any issues, now they leave that up to the Kosovo police force."
"The appreciation that is shown toward American soldiers never ends. Wherever the troops go people wave and always have polite things to say. Even when I spent time by myself away from the troops all I heard was how grateful the people were for helping to secure their independence. Here Spc. Kevin Richman from Tower City, ND of the 231 Brigade Support Battalion waves to two school children while on patrol."
"Physical fitness training and tests are also part of the normal routine while deployed. Spc Kayla Beckman is seen here taking her PT test with SFC Mary Jo Jangula and SFC Tammy Eckelberg helping to time and administer the test."
"Even when deployed to a peaceful place like Kosovo a death can occur. SGT Terry Rishling passed away from a heart attack at the young age of 38 while deployed. A memorial service was held at Camp Bondsteel where his fellow soldiers were able to pay their last respects."
"The ND National Guard tends to separate itself from the rest of the country in regards to how many relatives serve together. Just in Kosovo alone there are nearly 40 family relationships serving together in one form or another. Even the local media in Kosovo commented on what a unique experience that must be to deploy with a family member. One of the married couples serving in Kosovo is SGT Adam D. Greff and his wife Spc Jennifer M. Greff from Dickenson. They are seen here viewing awards and medals at the Center for Public Safety Education and Development where many of Kosovo's police are trained."
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