Sgt. First Class Carlos H. Sanchez Jr., a 17-year veteran of the Louisiana National Guard and a native of Honduras, may be the quintessentially versatile "citizen soldier." As a licensed practical nurse assigned to an Army MASH unit during Gulf War I in Iraq, Sanchez treated both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi prisoners of war who were wounded in battle. Deployed to the Kosovo province of Serbia in 2003, Sanchez united homesick U.S. troops with their families via video conference calls by combining skills he learned as both a National Guard photographer and as a civilian electronics salesman at Service Merchandise in New Orleans.
Now an owner of a local income tax return business, Sanchez offers regaling tales of his tour of Kosovo that mercifully simplify the complex political strife between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians. "You can't talk bad about (former President) Clinton in Kosovo, not among the Albanians -- he bombed the crap out of the Serbs," Sanchez says, referring to the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia in 2000 in response to its "ethnic cleansing" campaign that drove 700,000 ethnic Albanians from their Kosovo homes. Serbia surrendered and NATO posted 50,000 troops to keep the peace in Kosovo. The United States contributed a number of Army National Guard units to the international peacekeeping force.
In 2003, Sanchez was among a contingent from Louisiana. He arrived in Kosovo for a one-year deployment as a photographer for the Army Public Affairs Division. He also was assigned to provide "force protection" for U.S. troops. He says his mission involved "sounding out" both sides of an ethnic feud.
Kosovo was heavily landmined because of the fighting. Otherwise, the danger to U.S. troops in Kosovo was comparatively low to other conflicts, he says. "The threat level was much lower than the first Gulf War," he says. "We still carried our weapons, but we were more worried about keeping them (ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians) from killing each other."
He continues: "The Albanians respected us (the United States) because we helped them regain [autonomy from Serbia that] they lost. And we helped the Serbs with bridge repairs and school construction and we found both sides coal for heating." Moreover, he says, the 30-member contingent of citizen-soldiers from Louisiana included lawyers, business owners and college students who could relate to many of the problems of the populace. "I definitely feel like I made a difference," he says.
The best part of his deployment was the people of Kosovo. "The people were friendly," he says. "They wanted us to help make Kosovo a better place." In addition, U.S. troops took over a former Serbian camp, he says, where they enjoyed " good facilities and good food," as well as showers, network news and access to computers.
In the 1991 war with Iraq, Sanchez was a medic assigned to the 159th MASH unit of the Army. He dressed the wounds of U.S. troops and captured Iraqi soldiers alike. "It was odd," he recalls. "One minute you are treating an American soldier and next minute you are treating an EPW (Enemy Prisoner of War).
"With the Iraqis, you needed translators," he said. "They were scared. Their commanders told them we would do horrible things to them. Once they found out we just wanted to treat them, then they became docile." In March 2004, Sanchez returned to New Orleans and the Louisiana National Guard headquarters at Jackson Barracks. Shortly afterward, ethnic tensions erupted in Kosovo, he notes with disappointment.