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Assistant district attorney recounts tour of duty in Kosovo

March 22, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - For more than a year, the attention of the nation has been focused on the war in Iraq, but thousands of American servicemen and women remain overseas in almost forgotten hot spots, such as Kosovo in the Balkans.

Many among the 3,000 troops serving in that region are, like 1st. Lt. Matt Fogal, members of the Pennsylvania National Guard. An assistant Franklin County district attorney, the 31-year-old returned to Chambersburg last month after being deployed to Kosovo in July 2003.

"It's quiet there right now, not like '99-2000," Fogal said last week. "As long as we're there, not just us, but the NATO countries, it will be. Once we leave, who knows?" he said of the region's relative peace.

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About the same time as the interview, however, Stars and Stripes reported a new round of civil unrest erupted between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, with one person killed and 30 injured in Gjilane, the city where he was stationed at Camp Monteith. U.S. and other troops were rushed in from Bosnia-Herzegovina to quell riots in Gjilane and other cities.

"The ethnic tension over there is still so palpable," Fogal said of the region, where about 80 percent of the population is Muslim and the call to afternoon prayers can be heard from the mosques.

"The real challenge, at this point, is to see the Serbs don't get beat up," he said.

"It's a bad neighborhood, like the Middle East of Europe," he said. "You always have a weapon, loaded ... when you're off base," Fogal said.

An infantryman until he got his law degree from Dickinson College, Fogal said he got out on patrols as often as he could "and probably more than my wife would have liked."

Extremists on both sides of the ethnic and religious divide are ready to upset the peace, but Fogal said most Serbs and Albanians, especially children, were friendly to U.S. forces.

Fogal was hired as an assistant district attorney in September 2002, but was called up for active duty and sent to Fort Stewart, Ga., the following March to train for deployment. A member of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, he was assigned to the Pennsylvania National Guard's 28th Infantry Division.

While training for peacekeeping duties, the war in Iraq began and Fogal said there was a natural desire to go there instead of Kosovo.

"You feel like you're on the JV (junior varsity)," said Fogal, who enlisted as an infantry man in 1994.

In Gjilane, he was assigned to the 1/111th Battalion, which traces its roots back to the Militia Associators formed in 1747 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. The Associators, as the unit still is known, is perhaps the oldest guard unit in the nation, he said.

During his year on active duty stateside and abroad, Fogal said he only dealt with two serious violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice - a soldier who deserted before deployment and one facing a serious morals charge in Kosovo.

As the only JAG at Camp Monteith, Fogal said most of what he dealt with came down to "bad soldiering," resulting in Article 15 disciplinary hearings with loss of pay or rank as punishment. Because troops were prohibited from drinking, alcohol violations occasionally occurred, he said.

The vast majority of soldiers, he said, performed their duties without complaint and made good use of off-duty time.

Despite disagreements with some European nations over the war in Iraq, those nations and the U.S. work cooperatively to keep the peace in Kosovo, Fogal said.

Duty overseas has meant missed holidays and birthdays and Fogal has been catching up on lost time with his wife, Dana, son Alex, 10, and 8-year-old daughter, Karli. Today he is back on the job, reacquainting himself with civilian criminal law by sitting in on a jury trial.

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