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Perry Tells Troops Of Hard Road Ahead

November 28, 1996

CAMP DOBOL, Bosnia (AP) _ Defense Secretary William Perry joined U.S. soldiers in the mud and freezing rain Thursday to deliver a Thanksgiving message of discipline and patience for their still-unfinished mission in Bosnia.

``This is not exactly the first place you want to spend your Thanksgiving, and it’s not my first choice either,″ Perry, making a farewell visit to the troops, told some of the 850 Army soldiers based in tents here, about 12 miles outside Tuzla. ``I’m here to say thank you. You are doing the work of the Lord.″

The soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division stood in an icy rain to hear the defense secretary, who also held top-level meetings with U.S. and Russian generals on the mission of NATO’s new 31,000-member international force.

The new group, which succeeds a NATO peacekeeping force of twice that size, takes over Dec. 20 and includes about 8,500 U.S. troops.

``This is going to be a difficult task. It’s not fighting in a war. But maintaining the security situation will demand discipline,″ Perry said.

He lavished praised on the soldiers, who came to Bosnia in October to protect departing U.S. troops who had been part of the year-old peacekeeping force. But he warned the young troops that they will be required to remain as part of the alliance’s new ``stabilization force.″

At U.S. troop headquarters in Tuzla, Air Force Technical Sgt. Basil Forrest of Brooklyn, N.Y., noted that Thanksgiving is the first of several holidays he’ll spend in this war-scarred land.

``I’ll be here for Christmas and New Year’s and my birthday″ on Jan. 16, he said. ``Tell my mom not to forget my present.″

While the military has done its job separating Bosnia’s warring factions and getting local forces to put their heavy weapons aside, Perry said, much needs to be done on the civilian side. He said that includes the return of refugees, holding local elections and advancing the work of the war crimes tribunals.

``Civilian work has been, bluntly, slow to get off the ground,″ Perry said.

Perry met with Russia’s deputy defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Toporov, who told reporters he expects his 1,500-member airborne brigade to stay on for the new mission along with the Americans. But its size might be cut by 200 to 300 soldiers.

Russian and U.S. forces have been conducting joint patrols in the region, a development Perry often points to with great pride.

``The peace is pretty fragile, but there is still a peace,″ Toporov told reporters.

Perry also met with top NATO commander Gen. George Joulwan, who said that the 31,000 NATO troop level could be reduced by the end of 1997 if peace endures.

Perry joined U.S. and Russian soldiers for a traditional Thanksgiving feast that included turkey, ham, corn bread dressing, cranberry sauce, peas and pumpkin and apple pie.

Americans also got a holiday break at the Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, where British and Spanish airmen took over their scheduled flights over Bosnia for the day, said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, a senior Democrat on the House National Security Committee.

Skelton, who celebrated the Thanksgiving meal with two Marine squadrons, said he was impressed by their high spirits and dedication to their job. ``I wish every American could see what I saw today. I’m afraid they are being forgotten at home,″ he said.

It is Perry’s third year of visiting troops in the field on Thanksgiving. He travels on to Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Japan to continue his holiday troop visits.

The 69-year-old defense secretary has given notice he won’t be at the Pentagon’s helm in President Clinton’s second term. He appears to be using this holiday trip as a farewell to U.S. troops and to let the 1.4 million men and women in uniform know they haven’t been forgotten.

Perry, who has traveled more than any other civilian head of the military, earlier told several hundred sailors in Naples that he loves traveling ``to see firsthand, to hear firsthand from the troops, `How’s it going?‴

Two years ago on Thanksgiving he visited U.S. troops sent to help restore democracy in Haiti. Last year he was in Macedonia to meet with the several hundred U.S. soldiers working to ensure that the Bosnia conflict did not spill across Balkan borders.

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