Newsday - Christmas in Kosovo for soldiers

1999-12-24

By MIHAELA ARMASELU - Associated Press Writer

CAMP BONDSTEEL, Yugoslavia (AP) -- Beneath a bright full moon, groups of American soldiers gathered Friday night in helicopter hangars, tents or outdoors in the freezing cold to celebrate a Christmas Eve spent for the first time in faraway Kosovo.

``The whole thing is sad, but it's something that we have to do,'' said Specialist Harvey Segura of Los Angeles, who spent his Christmas Eve guarding one of the entrances to this sprawling U.S. base in eastern Kosovo.

``In a way, it's good we are here,'' Segura said. ``But we do miss our families, and I have a wife and three children who are waiting for me.''

This is the first Christmas the troops have spent in Kosovo, where NATO-led peacekeepers arrived six months ago to enforce a peace plan, which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accepted after 78 days of NATO air bombardment.

Each of the units at Camp Bondsteel, home to about 5,000 mostly American soldiers, tried to capture the spirit of the holidays.

Members of the 101st Military Intelligence Battalion assembled around an artificial tree, decorated with paper ornaments the soldiers made themselves.

About 50 of them cheered as 1st Lt. Ira Wagner of Kermit, Texas, struggled to secure a paper star on top of the tree. ``C'mon man,'' one of them shouted. ``This is your most important mission in Kosovo!''

About 150 other soldiers celebrated at a Protestant candlelight service.

But though the soldiers were far from home, they weren't exactly forgotten. Thousands of letters were delivered Friday from school children, church groups and charities in the United States. Each letter was addressed simply: ``To any soldier in Task Force Falcon-Camp Bondsteel.''

``I'm very happy that somebody is thinking about me, somebody that doesn't even know me,'' said Sgt. Fred Newcomer of Tacoma, Wash., as he opened one of the letters.

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