White Christmas for our troops in Kosovo

Ice cold at Camp Clarke.

Ice cold at Camp Clarke.

Many west of Ireland members of the army will spend Christmas overseas and were delighted to get a visit from An Taoiseach Brian Cowen yesterday (Monday ).

The 39 Infantry Group departed Ireland from Baldonnel military airport in October for duty with the Kosovo Force (KFOR ) in Kosovo. The Infantry Group is drawn from units of the 4th Western Brigade and mostly from the west of Ireland and is under the command of Lt Col Eamon Caulfield from the 6 Infantry Battalion in Custume Barracks in Athlone who was the lead battalion for the concentration of the unit.

The Infantry Group is deployed as part of a multi-national task force (Task Force Centre ) that was commanded last year by Brig Gen Gerry Hegarty who is now the General Officer Commanding the 4th Western Brigade since his return to Ireland last September.

Their mission is to ensure a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement throughout its area of operations. The majority of personnel are stationed at Camp Clarke with other members of the 39 Infantry Group at Camp Ville, KFOR Main, and Camp Victoria.

It has been a busy period for the 39 Infantry Group since taking over operations in October. Patrolling is carried out, both day and night, on a daily basis. Recent events have required that the unit is at stand-by for long periods. Recent snow has made conditions harsh with temperatures below minus 15 degrees at night. Even in such conditions constant liaison with the locals and village leaders goes on.

Personnel with the unit are ever vigilant and constantly monitoring within their area of operations. Some of the most sensitive areas and possible flash points in Kosovo fall within the Irish contingents responsibility.

One such area is a Serb enclave of four key villages and a nearby Kosovo Albanian village called Slovinje where a massacre of people was reported during the war which occurred in 1999. This is an area which still requires constant patrolling, monitoring and developing effective relations with the local population.

One of the tasks in addition to its operational tasks that the contingent has focused on during its tour of duty, is the implementation of humanitarian projects. So far three major projects have been completed and more are planned for the remainder of their tour of duty. One such project is the building of toilets and wash facilities for primary school children in the village of Slovinje as they do not have any in the school. These projects are funded through fund raising events by the soldiers of the contingent themselves. The unit also identifies and supervises major projects.

Apart from yesterday’s visit, the group has also recently hosted visits from the Bishop of Elphin, The Most Reverend Christopher Jones DD who celebrated the annual mass for the deceased members of the defence forces and a visit of Ireland’s recently accredited Ambassador to Kosovo, Martin Greene.

However it is not all work. Activities such as Irish classes and physical training are proving a welcome break from duty when the opportunity arises and keeps morale high.

Many of the unit will remain on full duty in Kosovo over the Christmas period and the day itself will be like any other operational day during the tour of duty, but preparations are in hand to ensure that personnel have a portion of the Christmas goodwill and traditional fare will be served on the day prepared by the dedicated catering staff in Camp Clarke led by Sgt Gaffney from Mount Charles in County Donegal whose son is also on duty with him in Kosovo over the Christmas season.

The unit chaplain Fr Ger Dowd from Athlone will celebrate Mass in Camp Clarke on Christmas Day morning and the Mass in Kosovo will be broadcast live in conjunction with the masses being celebrated live from Chad and McKee Barracks in Dublin on RTE.

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