July 3, 1996

For U.S. Troops, Bosnia Seems to Be Healthy Place


ZIVINICE, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- A fear of American casualties has driven Washington's policy about military involvement in Bosnia, but Army statistics show that the troops stationed here are safer, healthier, and less likely to be killed than soldiers in the Army as a whole.

Among the 18,500 soldiers assigned to the Army task force in Bosnia, there have been only three deaths through late June, one-third the rate last year among soldiers throughout the Army. In Bosnia, one soldier was killed by a mine, one by a kitchen fire, and one when his truck ran off a narrow bridge.

Most deaths in the Army as a whole were caused by accidents, but causes of death also include disease, homicide, and suicide.

The number of American soldiers being hospitalized in Bosnia is about three-quarters of the rate for the Army, according to Army statistics. The bulk of American military personnel here are Army troops, with only a sprinkling of members of other branches of the service.

A captain here provided an explanation for the phenomenon. "They've got most of us basically locked down in camp 24 hours a day. If you don't have a life, you can't get hurt."

It may overstate things to say the American troops here -- essentially confined to their bases and restricted from drinking alcohol -- don't have a life. As of late June, there have been 62 pregnancies reported among the 2,000 or so women serving in Bosnia. That is something else doctors say they did not expect, although the pregnancy rate does not exceed the average for women in the Army overall.

A pregnant soldier is sent back to Germany as soon as her pregnancy is confirmed.

The men and women assigned to Bosnia might include couples, married or otherwise, but most of them do not bring families or partners along to postings like this. Lt. Col. Scott McChrystal, the chaplain of the 1st Armored Division, said that spouses left behind in Germany have told him they are worried about extramarital affairs among the troops in Bosnia.

At Camp McGovern, a large base in the northern part of the American sector, most of the medical staff -- from ambulance drivers to the doctor -- spent part of a recent June afternoon with nothing more to do than listen to a soldier playing the guitar.

"We're on standby for a sprained ankle from the basketball court," smiled Capt. Ron Hillock, the doctor.

He was only half joking. With the small number of serious injuries, sprained joints and pulled muscles from sports activities are now a large part of what sends soldiers to the doctor.

The rate of injuries and accidents is higher here than it is in the army as a whole, but the number of serious injuries among American troops in Bosnia is so much lower than predicted that surgeons are being sent back to Army hospitals in Germany for short periods to keep their skills from getting rusty.

Most soldiers, however, are generally healthier than they were when they arrived, medical officers here say, attributing the changes to the no-alcohol rule as well as to the strenuous physical work troops in Bosnia face.

As of late June, there have been eight deaths in British military units in Bosnia this year. There are about 9,000 British soldiers here now, although there were about 14,000 earlier on. The French army, with the third largest number of soldiers, currently about 6,000, has lost three troops: two of those were suicides.

The officials who give the orders to commanders want to keep the American troops protected to the point that they are reluctant to expose the soldiers to the dangers they might encounter if they actively pursued the indicted war criminals who are known to be at large in Bosnia.

Restrictions on the American soldiers are such that after six months in Bosnia, few have ever spoken to a Bosnian. Most of them can only see the country over the razor wire encircling their camps, or from convoys and patrols sent out under strict orders not to stop at a corner store for so much as a soft drink. Flak jackets are required attire off base.

"I'd kind of like the chance to talk to the people I'm over here to help," said Sgt. Steven Miller, of Louisville, Ky.

The sergeant and Pfc. Joe Antu were having Pepsis at a base snack shop located between the workout room and a dirt field loaded with trucks and Bradley fighting vehicles. That has been pretty much the extent of their world for the last half year.

Antu, from San Antonio, said: "I went home on leave and my buddies asked me what Bosnia is like. I told them I have no idea."

When American soldiers arrived in Bosnia, in freezing temperatures, and before the local armies were ordered to stay in their barracks, GIs had fewer complaints about not being able to move freely outside their bases.

Earlier on, perhaps the highest number of complaints were about not being able to have a beer. But today soldiers seem to have gotten used to the alcohol ban.

Swinging canvas bags loaded with rocks into place to reinforce a roadside culvert, Sgt. Dennis Barylski said: "Back in Germany, I used to get trashed every weekend. I was a weekend drunk. But now I don't miss booze at all."

The most common reason for surgery is hernia: there have been 15 of them as of late June. The second most common is appendicitis, 12 cases.

What is most likely to injure a soldier seriously is a road accident; 13 soldiers have been hurt that way. Three have been hurt by the second most common reason for serious injury, mines. Two soldiers were wounded by snipers. One was shot, but not seriously wounded, by someone thought to have been trying to sneak onto a base.