The Fight Watchman: Jason Schroeder

Author: Richard Mertens


The village of Cernica lies in a little valley in southern Kosovo, surrounded by brown scrub-covered hills and barely noticeable from the potholed main road that passes about a mile away. With its crooked, dusty lanes, its red-tiled roofs and its adjoining patchwork of fields, it looks like just another quiet if somewhat battered Balkan village.

In fact, Cernica is one of the more violent places in the province. The village is ethnically divided, split between Serbs and ethnic Albanians whose attachment to the place is rivaled only by their animosity toward each other. The quiet rarely lasts for long. One day a house blows up, a grenade explodes in a yard, or, less often, someone is attacked or even killed. With just 2,000 residents, Cernica is a concentrated version of Kosovo itself, where the ongoing conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians frustrates Western efforts to establish a lasting peace.

Last year, Jason Schroeder ‘93, a 29-year-old Army lieutenant, arrived in Cernica hoping he could make a difference. Schroeder’s platoon was sent to Kosovo in March 2000 to join the 7,000-strong American peacekeeping force in the province. The platoon’s job was to live in Cernica and curb the violence. They had higher ambitions, too. They hoped to nudge Cernica a step closer to real peace.

“We felt it was kind of our collective responsibility here in town,” Schroeder said one day, sitting in the platoon’s headquarters, a half-finished, rat-infested house in the center of the village. “If they’re going to take the time to deploy us for six months, let’s try to do something.”

Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, has been under NATO and United Nations control since peacekeeping troops entered the province in June 1999, after an 11-week NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. The intervention ended a decade of Serbian repression against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority, but it also created new problems that the peacekeepers have wrestled with ever since. Freed from Serbian rule, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians immediately turned upon local Serbs, who make up about 10 percent of the population. The NATO troops have not been able to stop them.

Schroeder and his 37 men decided that peace was impossible in the village as long as it remained divided. The division went well beyond geography. Serbs and ethnic Albanians spoke different languages, worshiped different gods, bought their groceries at different stores and rarely if ever spoke to each other. They lived in the same village but inhabited separate and mutually hostile worlds. The soldiers knew they could not expect Serbs and ethnic Albanians to suddenly become friends. But they might begin talking to each other again. That would be a start.

The soldiers did routine peacekeeping stuff. They went on patrols, set up checkpoints to search for guns, enforced a curfew. But they also did things aimed at earning the villagers’ trust. They booted around old soccer balls with the children. They helped families rebuild houses that had been burned by Serbian security forces in 1999. They put their extra rations in the back of a Humvee and distributed them to the poor. If the villagers could be persuaded to cooperate with the soldiers, they thought, maybe they could be persuaded to cooperate with each other.

As the officer in charge, Schroeder spent much of his time visiting people and trying to solve their problems. Dressed in full combat gear — flak jacket, helmet, assault rifle hanging from a clip at his shoulder — he made an impressive figure. A member of the Army’s elite 101st Airborne Division, he had been trained to swoop into battle on a Chinook or Blackhawk helicopter and destroy the enemy. Peacekeeping, on the other hand, was much more subtle work. “It’s pretty much on-the-job training,” he said.

He was good at it. “He’s down to earth,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Boden, Schroeder’s second-in-command. “He’s a people-oriented person.” Indeed, strolling through the village one afternoon, Schroeder seemed more like the mayor of Cernica than an infantry commander. He chatted with two Serb grandmothers who sat outside a house, watching some children. “Dobar dan!” he greeted them, smiling and speaking in their own language. “Kako ste?” In an Albanian neighborhood nearby, he stopped to drink coffee at one house, accepting the traditional gesture of Balkan hospitality. Farther on he looked in on a poor family that lived in a windowless wood hut with a dirt floor. The platoon was trying to get the family a new house.

Schroeder came to soldiering late. After studying accounting at Notre Dame, he worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers in South Bend. But something felt missing in his life, and he turned to the Army to find it. “My grandfather landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day,” he said. “My father was in Vietnam. Neither was a career Army man, but they did what they felt was their part for the good of the country. I felt it was time to do my part, too.”

Schroeder’s first goal in Cernica was to arrange a meeting between its Serb and ethnic Albanian leaders. But neither persuasion nor stratagem worked. The men simply did not want to meet. Eventually, Schroeder and his men decided to shift their focus. They began asking ordinary Serbs and ethnic Albanians to identify old acquaintances on the other side. Then they quietly went about trying to set up a rendezvous.

This succeeded no better. The mistrust was simply too great, and all the good will of the United States Army could not sweep it aside. And so by the end of August, as the soldiers prepared to return to the United States, they had to confront the question of just what they had accomplished. They had grown fond of the village, and they felt sure that their efforts had made it a better place. But they felt disappointed and perplexed. The violence, though diminished, continued. (A house blew up the night they left.) And Cernica was no less divided than when they arrived.

“It’s been an education,” Schroeder said. He had learned a lesson that many American soldiers have learned in Kosovo about the limits of peacekeeping. He believed in the mission. He had brought to it more than a little determination and hope. But his idealism, which was genuine and deep, was no match for the stern realities of a Kosovo village.

“We had loftier aspirations for this place,” he reflected just a few days before departing. “Maybe they were somewhat naive. Maybe we didn’t really know what we were getting into.”

Richard Mertens has reported extensively from the Balkans.