More than 300 N.C. National Guard soldiers will return home this week after a nine-month deployment to the disputed European country of Kosovo.
The return of the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, Headquarters Company, marks the end of the fourth and largest deployment of North Carolina Guard troops to the small Balkan country, where NATO has led a peacekeeping mission since 1999.
The U.S. military involvement in Kosovo has largely been forgotten, overshadowed by wars in the Middle East since the terrorist attacks in 2001. With active-duty troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the burden in Kosovo over the years has fallen to National Guard units, like the 30th. From 2003 to 2013, the U.S. sent only National Guard soldiers to Kosovo.
The mission there is to ensure peace in a country still plagued by ethnic tensions. Kosovo was a province of Serbia when NATO launched a bombing campaign in 1999 to halt a bloody crackdown by Serbian leader Slobodan Miloscvic, whose tactics to end an insurgency echoed the ethnic cleansing that had occurred in Bosnia a few years earlier.
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NATO’s deployment in Kosovo has since shrunk from about 50,000 in 1999 to 4,600 in November. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized by more than 100 nations, including the U.S., but not Serbia and other key countries such as Russia, India and China.
Col. Vernon Simpson Jr., commander of the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, told Stars and Stripes this month that the people of Kosovo still want NATO there.
“Kosovo is much more secure than it has been,” Simpson said. “But to say that the mission is winding down would be a stretch.”
The 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team is comprised of units from North Carolina and West Virginia and nicknamed “Old Hickory,” in honor of President Andrew Jackson. Its members have skills from their civilian lives as engineers, lawyers, police officers and other professions that they put to use working in Kosovo.
“Many times their civilian skills correlate to their military skills,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Devivo, a spokesman for the N.C. National Guard.
The 30th will arrive in North Carolina starting Tuesday in three groups of about 100. Devivo said previous deployments to Kosovo include a military police unit in 2003, a finance company in 2005 and an explosives ordnance detachment in 2007.
While the North Carolina Guard has left Kosovo, Devivo said it still has more than 500 soldiers and airmen deployed in Afghanistan and the Middle East.