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U.S. Army Has Guns, Will Travel

May 21, 1999

COASTAL ALBANIA (AP) _ Pieter Konica was ready to haggle. He had inherited these green fields from his grandfather, and since the huge, tank-tracked howitzers the Americans call ``Paladins″ were going to tear them up, he should be compensated.

Konica, a swarthy, gray-haired man in a plaid shirt, wanted $150. The U.S. Army lawyer in green combat fatigues frowned. No deal, he said through an interpreter.

The lawyer, Capt. Keith Moore-Erickson, was driving a hard-bargain _ except it was to Konica’s advantage, not the U.S. Army’s.

``I told him he would be entitled to all damages to his property and $150 just doesn’t cut it,″ Moore-Erickson said. ``I wanted him to understand, to be sure of that.″

The legal conference in the road _ Konica, two Albanian interpreters and several Americans in uniform, lasted only minutes. The landowner walked away satisfied, and the three big guns jockeyed noisily into position, long barrels pointed to the west, ready for action.

The Paladins _ the name harkens back to noble knights of Medieval times _ are an upgraded, self-propelled version of the Army’s old standby, the 155mm howitzer, computerized for greater range and accuracy.

A battery of eight Paladins are part of the 5,000-strong U.S. force at Task Force Hawk in Albania that is girding for possible war against Serbian forces in Kosovo.

On Thursday, three guns left the 27th Field Artillery compound at Tirana’s Rinas airport and trundled south over back roads to the pre-designated site where they were conduct an afternoon of firing practice.

Along the 30-mile route, villagers and drivers watched the awesome convoy with detached awe; children flocked to the roadside to wave at the men in green camouflage atop the lumbering, 20- ton behemoth.

The exercise was to ``calibrate,″ or test, the guns’ performance with different types of powder. From Konica’s farm, 6 miles inland, they would fire dozens of rounds to land 9 miles out into the Adriatic Sea.

First Lt. Roger Taneus, 24, the platoon leader, said it was a good way to practice artillery in a crowed land. ``I’ve never done it before,″ he said. ``It’s not something that’s done very often.″

The mission had been elaborately planned, with forward observers in a lighthouse on shore to warn away surface ships. The airspace was to be closed to traffic for the duration of the shoot.

But the elaborate preparations went awry. Just as Sgt. 1st Class Justin Randall, 37, of Centralia, Wash., the platoon’s ``chief of smoke,″ was about to give the order to fire the first rounds, the radio crackled. A plane had entered the airspace offshore.

Randall and his colleagues sat on a grassy bank waiting for a go-ahead and speculating on the likely reaction of some cows in a nearby field to a howitzer going off unexpectedly.

Spc. Benny Spencer, 22, a Navajo Indian from Tuba City, Ariz., whose uncle was one of the famous ``Navajo Code-Talkers″ of World War II, put a more eloquent spin on it. ``The cannon booms and echoes across the valley. It’s a distinguished sound, and that’s why they call artillery the ’King of Battle,‴ he said.

In the end, they never found out about the cows. The over-water approach to Tirana’s airport proved so busy that the entire practice ultimately was canceled.

But Pieter Konica stood to gain. Shoot or no shoot, he would be well-compensated under the federal Foreign Claims Act for ``maneuver damage″ to his fields, military lawyer Moore-Erickson said.

``Part of the rationale of the law is to instill good relations with local people,″ he said.

Konica was not pressing for a big payoff. Through an interpreter, he told the Americans ``you are here for a good purpose.″

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