December 30, 1995
Web posted at: 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House says the wounding of a U.S. soldier by a land mine in Bosnia will not stop the peacekeeping mission there.
Saturday, Specialist Martin John Begosh, 24, became the first U.S. casualty of the NATO mission, when he was wounded in the explosion in northern Bosnia. A medical helicopter took him to the mobile Army surgical hospital near Zupanja, Croatia, where he was listed in stable condition.
Begosh, a military policeman from Rockville, Maryland, suffered internal injuries when the Humvee, or jeep-like vehicle, he was riding in hit an anti-tank land mine during a reconnaissance mission. The incident occurred near Bijela, Bosnia, approximately 30 miles north of Tuzla where U.S. troops are based. Considering that Bosnia is strewn with millions of land mines from the three and a half years of war, Washington officials say that the incident is far from a surprise.
In fact, Clinton Administration officials acknowledged that land mines were among the greatest threats to U.S. soldiers in Bosnia but they warned that casualties would not stop the mission.
"Mines have always been our biggest concern and we're working very hard on them. Obviously, I'm sorry this happened but they're making good progress on the mine problem. It's going to be difficult to get rid of them all," President Clinton said Saturday. (187K AIFF sound or 187K WAV sound)
Most estimates place the number of land mines in Bosnia at six million. The location of some mine fields is known and experts have been either removing them or blocking off the mined areas. But because of the shifting battle lines during the Balkans war, the location of large numbers of mines is not known. "Your first indication that there are mines will probably be when somebody steps on one. If you're lucky, you see one first," mine expert Jack McGeorge said.
At the start of the peace mission, Pentagon officials had predicted that weather or mines would cause the first casualties in Bosnia. Few experts believe that the soldier wounded by the mine will be the last. However, the White House says that as long as the peace mission continues, U.S. troops will stay.
But if Begosh's mother had her way, he would not stay. Judy Begosh told the Reuter news agency she wants her son to get his Purple Heart for his wound, return home to Maryland and get a job. "I told him, 'You've given enough to the military, come out and go to work and a get a real job," she said.
Begosh is at the end of his five-year enlistment and had considered extending his tour of duty. He served in the Gulf War as well.
While Begosh was being brought to the hospital in Zupanja, the weather continued to slow the bridge-building progress over the Sava River between Croatia and Bosnia. The river has swollen to nearly 2 feet over its banks during the past several days. Although U.S. soldiers didn't make their noon deadline Saturday, they moved a step closer to completing a two-way pontoon bridge that will help deploy the main U.S. contingent of 20,000 soldiers into Bosnia.
The first section of the bridge, more than 200 yards long, was already in place on Saturday. But as floodwaters continued to hamper the operation, commanders abandoned their Saturday deadline to complete the bridge. They did not want to rush the operation and jeopardize it further. "We're not going to take undue risk in moving in. From the very beginning, we decided that this would be a major, deliberate, deployment," Northeast Sector Commander Major General William Nash said.
Chinook helicopters, their twin rotors cutting through the continuous snowfall, lifted more pontoon bays into position above the Sava. Rising waters mean that the engineers must lengthen the bridge and then be prepared to remove small sections when the waters begin to recede.
The first units that will cross into Bosnia, the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry, outfitted with Bradley fighting vehicles and M-1 Abram tanks, are already standing by in a staging area near the bridge. It has been a tedious wait for these soldiers in limbo on the other side of the Sava. "I'm happy. I mean, we've been sitting here for so long. They told us two weeks ago that we'd be rolling across so it's about time," a U.S. soldier said.
The commander of the 1st Cavalry, Lt. Col. Gregg Stone, says that another delay is less important than safety. "The overriding goal will be: do a safe organized crossing of the river. And if that doesn't happen 'til tomorrow, then so be it," Stone said.
As civilians on both sides of the Sava River looked on, the Chinooks ferried in more of the pontoon bays that were almost immediately covered by a dusting of snow as soon as they hit the water. For many of the people in Bosnia, the arrival of NATO forces reinforces their hope that years of civil war have come to an end.
U.S. commanders on the scene measured another good day's progress Saturday and issued yet another prediction: that 1st Cavalry troops would be crossing into Bosnia-Herzegovina sometime Sunday.
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