50th Finance Serves In Bosnia

By Tech. sgt. Mark Olsen, photos by Lt. Col. James Pippitt


B osnia has all the aspects of any European country: culture, great food, and friendly people. And like all the major European countries it is the latest victim of the devastation of war. From September 2001 through March 2002, 18 members of the 50th Finance Battalion were deployed to Bosnia as part of SFOR-10 (Stabilization FORce). What was unique was that for the first time the Guard was in charge of the deployment. The finance section (and all the money) was assigned to the Division headquarters, Eagle Base, near Tuzla, which is almost in the dead center of Bosnia. The base is a Former Soviet/Yugoslav air base where they are still finding land mines (so you had to be careful when you stepped out). To this day several million landmines are still unaccounted for in the Bosnia-Herzegovina region.

“I was the first National Guard Finance Battalion Commander in charge of active duty troops in Bosnia,” stated Lt. Col. James Pippitt, Commander, 50th Finance Battalion. “I had 18 guardsmen from my unit and 15 active-duty troops, which I integrated immedi-ately in sections based on the abilities of the soldiers and not on whether they were active or guard.”

“The troops were then parceled out to Camp Comanche, the NATO base in Sarajevo, and Taszar, Hungary,” noted Capt. Walter Laskowski, A Company Commander, 50th Finance Battalion. Money was disbursed from those locations by road or by air when the weather got bad.

“They would go on two to three hour trips through the mountains, on roads that were barely passable, to get to the various Forward Observation (FOB) sites,” continued Lt. Col. Pippitt. “Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, I was sending out troops to FOB Connor and Morgan, as well as Camp McGovern, which are all on the Croatian border. It got worse in November when we got two feet of snow - definitely not parkway driving.”

“Bosnia is one of the poorest countries in the region and the capital city Sarajevo is still pretty torn up from the war. The people are very pro-American. They are not looking forward to when we leave because the possibility of renewed conflict is still there,” observed Capt. Laskowski. “For a lot of our young troops this was a real eye-opener: it was their first real time away from home and in a combat zone as well.”

“It was the best experience of my life,” said Sgt. 1st Class David DeMarco, Chief of Military Pay. “I dealt with entitlements where there were a lot of pre-existing problems. By the end, 98 percent of the troop pay was correct while the other two percent were problems that they had brought down-range (from home base) with them.”

The finance troops had experiences in Bosnia like none they had ever encountered at Annual Training. “We were paying the Bosnian landowners for use of their land; we were paying for the telephone, electricity, and food,” explained Spc. Susan Cook, Commercial Vendor Pay. “Without Spc. Cook, there would have been no water, no electricity, and no food for the base,” commented Sgt. 1st Class DeMarco. “Most people had no idea that Cook was making sure they had a base to work at.”

All work and no play? “You have to adjust and adapt to your environment. Our unit participated in flag football and won the league trophy. We played basketball; one of our troops even won the Karaoke competition. We had the USO and Arnold Schwarzenegger come visit. The University of Maryland offered long-distance learning so some of my kids took classes and earned college credits,” added Lt. Col. Pippitt. “There are plenty of opportunities; you just had to take advantage of them.”

“I went on a road march in the Danish-Polish sector sponsored by the Danish Army. More than 150 UN peacekeeping forces, Polish, Danish, American, French, and Russian troops participated,” said Capt. Laskowski. “You got to see homes, watch farmers slaughter animals, and smell wood and coal burning.”

The 50th adopted their new community and visited the area schools and refugee camps. “After seeing the conditions these people were living in, we contacted friends, family, co-workers, and various other stateside organization to seek donations of school supplies, winter clothing, and sporting goods for the children,” remarked Lt. Col. Pippitt. “It was very easy to get people to donate items.”

So what does all this add up to? The 50th provided financial services to more than 3,000 soldiers, civilians, and multi-national troops including more than 56,000 transactions for more than $27.2 million. Pay missions resulted in the disbursement of more than $12.5 million dollars while 50th troops logged more than 5,000 accident free miles conducting these missions. They even participated in a training film about the Army's stored value (credit) card.

Throw into this the changeover to the Euro (the new European common currency). For the soldiers this wasn’t much of a problem, they had their cash card called the Eagle Card, which was linked to cash or checks so the conversion didn’t really affect them. It was a whole different story for the Bosnians. Everyone had to swap their Deutschmarks for Euros. “Bosnia had linked their money - the K-Mark - to the Deutschmark. Yet Bosnia is not part of the European Union so there was a big question whether or not the Euro would be accepted,” explained Lt. Col. Pippitt.

“We collected the European currencies from the Bosnians and shipped them back to their countries of origin,” noted Capt. Laskowski. In the end the Bosnians stuck with their currency and linked it with the Euro.

“Based on our Bosnian mission, we are changing our training to mirror what we did while deployed. I challenged my troops when they got back to train the troops that didn’t deploy,” finished Lt. Col. Pippitt. “This deployment set us up for the next 10 years.”