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Operation Potato Chip: GI Trips To Grocery Store Spread Good Will

January 20, 1996

KALESIJA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Call it Operation Potato Chip.

The four GIs shout the U.S. Army’s battle cry, ``Hoo-uh!″

They sling their M-16s over their shoulders, adjust their helmets and march 100 yards out of the cavalry camp to their destination: a Muslim Mom-and-Pop grocery store.

Two of the GIs go inside. Two others stand guard outside.

``I’ll take four Pepsis and some of those wafer cookies, ″ Sgt. 1st Class Jose Gutierrez tells the store clerk.

Eight Bosnian men, two women and a 12-year-old child watch the soldiers.

``You are our protectors,″ says Osman Osmancevic, 65. ``I wish the Balkans would become an American state because then there could not be war.″

U.S. Army nosh-squads are dispensing cash and good will alike at the only store still standing in bombed-out Kalesija, on the front line 19 miles east of Tuzla, the headquarters for the U.S. troops in Bosnia.

``We are happy the Americans are here. We believe in Americans 100 percent,″ says 19-year-old Mirsada Huremovic, the store clerk.

It’s a treat for the troops as well. Fears that renegades may attack the peacekeepers have meant a ban on bars and restaurants.

That doesn’t leave a whole lot to do back at the camp outside Kalesija. The 130 troops tinker with vehicles, clean weapons, read books, write letters and listen to music. The only other out is patrolling former conflict zones.

Even junk food patrols have ground rules, as set out by Capt. Jeffrey Erron, commander of the cavalry troop.

The nosh-squads wear flak vests, helmets and guns and travel in groups of at least four, said Erron, 35, from Columbus, Ga. One of the four must have a rank of staff sergeant or higher to make sure the others behave themselves.

The first soldiers to make the trip on Saturday were Gutierrez, 33, from New York, N.Y.; Spc. Michael Harris, 24, of Demopolis, Ala.; Spc. Tory Smith, 22, of Tumwater, Wash.; and Spc. Neil Pence, 25, of Crawley, W. Va.

It’s a short walk from the cavalry camp to Karic Zaim’s store, where top-floor windows remain boarded up from the days the city was repeatedly shelled.

Osmancevic and Hakija Karic, 68, snap to attention and salute the GIs as they walk in.

Earlier nosh-squads have already cleaned out the store’s supply of Lovely Lady chewing gum, which comes wrapped in photographs of naked women. The GIs settle for soft drinks and cookies. Small change is given in pieces of Cunga-Lunga, another brand of bubble gum.

``Our lives began again when the Americans arrived,″ Karic says. ``We have looked at death and blood and now we can sleep peacefully at night.″ A woman in the store translates for the GIs.

Huremovic, the store clerk, is also picking up some English.

Asked for a sampling, she says, ``How do you do? Welcome.″

And, crucially: ``You want something else?″

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