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Mission to Bosnia is 'For the Kids'

Vlasenica, Bosnia -- It's for the kids. Almost every Airman I talked to during my 17 days accompanying a deployment of Maryland Air National Guard civil engineers to Bosnia-Herzegovina this summer repeated that simple phrase.

In July, the Maryland Air National Guard sent 72 Airmen, mostly members of the 175th Civil Engineer Squadron, to rebuild an elementary school in the town of Vlasenica, about 37 miles from Sarajevo, and a memorial to three American diplomatic envoys killed during the war in Bosnia located at Mount Igman.

Although Bosnia-Herzegovina is Maryland's partner in the National Guard's State Partnership Program, which aims to establish long term military-to-military contacts to promote interoperability and support democratic institutions, those are ideas that operate well above the pay grade of the average Airman.

But every one of us remembers our elementary school days. For most, they are fond memories. They take us back to a time when learning was fun and not necessary for professional advancement. We thrived on new knowledge.

Growing up in the United States of America, we had plenty of books, good lighting and most of all, no stories of rumbling artillery and machinegun fire in our school district.

Lt. Col. John P. McVicker, commander of the 175th Civil Engineer Squadron, and Chief Master Sgt. Michael Bosse, base civil engineering manager, both mentioned how proud there are that when the engineers finish a mission, they leave something behind better than when they arrived.

This school in Bosnia-Herzegovina is a perfect example.

These children will have better conditions to learn. Maybe they will be better students. Maybe they will look upon Americans in a better light. Maybe they will appreciate the hard work of those who organized us and the Bosnian government to achieve this goal.

Many people donated boxes of books to stock their library and the Airmen also decided to donate their recreational equipment. Soccer balls, volley balls and footballs were left behind for the children of Vlasenica because they are at an age where having fun is just as important as learning.

As I was wrapping up the photography at the end of my tour, many parents with their children were walking around the school. I bet they were very curious to see the inside. I wish I could be there to see their faces on the first day back to school this fall.

During a visit to the school, Mr. Charles English, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia and a native of Montgomery County, said, "This is not a peace keeping mission. This is a peace building mission."

Anyone who has driven through Sarajevo knows the scars do not heal fast. The buildings still show their shrapnel wounds more than a decade later. Maybe this deployment will teach us all to work together to build better things instead of tearing them down.

I had an opportunity to visit the site of a memorial on Mount Igman, near Sarajevo, that was being refurbished by our engineers. On the way there, unexploded ordnance was discovered in the road, having been exposed by recent heavy rain. After properly marking the shell we pressed on to the memorial, located on the site where three Americans and their French driver died on a mission for peace.

This place too will be for the kids. A place to go to learn about sacrifice and honoring those who gave their last full measure for peace.

When all is said and done, this is just one school in a country where a lot of buildings need to be refurbished. But we must remember the good we did on this mission and not dwell on the long road ahead.

I will try to remember the smiling faces of the children who will return to this rebuilt school in the fall. I will remember their curiosity with our project and wanting to know our names.

I cannot feel anything but good at what we accomplished. And it was all for the kids