20 years later, Nebraska National Guard reflects on peacekeeping mission into Bosnia

July 20, 2023, 4 p.m. ·

Kyle Hildebrand talks with Dzevad Mujik as Mujik turns over a weapon.
Lt. Kyle Hildebrand (left) talks with Dzevad Mujik (right) in 2003 as Mujik turns over a weapon. (Image by Mike Tobias)

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The Bosnian War — one of the most brutal wars in Europe since WWII — ended with a peace treaty in 1995.

By 2003, the fighting calmed down but NATO wanted to completely end the conflict. That’s where the Nebraska National Guard stepped in. “Taskforce Huskers,” as the mission was called, included 400 Nebraska Army National Guard soldiers on the ground. It was unlike any mission for the National Guard at the time.

Robert Ford, a former Public Affairs Officer for the Nebraska National Guard, said the Army would normally handle a mission like that but those troops were busy in Afghanistan.

“We relieved those units from having to take care of that peacekeeping operation,” Ford said.

Part of the Guard’s work was to disarm citizens. Many citizens had been holding onto weapons for years in case an opposing group decided to attack.

The goal was to create a safe and secure environment, Lt. Kyle Hildebrand of Gretna said in a documentary made at the time.

Kyle Hildebrand stands in front of the camera for an interview.
Lt. Kyle Hildebrand talks with Nebraska Public Media in 2003. (Image by Mike Tobias)

“We want people to progress to a point where everyone can live in harmony with one another,” he said.

NATO and the National Guard were hoping for any semblance of harmony among the three factions in Bosnia. Those factions include the ethnic Serbs, who are mostly Serbian Orthodox; the ethnic Croats, who are largely Roman Catholic; and Bosniaks, who are primarily Muslims.

“There was both an ethnic as well as a religious separation,” Ford said. “So it was pretty easy to tell — for them, hard for us — very easy for them to tell who was who from an ethnic and religious perspective.”

Cultural training at the outset of the mission educated soldiers on the unique circumstances. But Ford said the Guardsmen would never fully grasp the nuances of hate and distrust between the three groups.

Several decades of economic unrest resulted in Serbian forces “ethnically cleansing" the Muslim population. In the 1990s, millions of Muslims were killed or forcibly removed from eastern Bosnia, according to the Associated Press.

Ford said many of the Bosnians he spoke with during the mission didn’t believe the country could recover.

“Too much atrocities, too much war, too much fighting for the generation that lost individuals — their sons and daughters and husbands — to say, ‘Okay, let bygones be bygones.’ Right? That would be incredibly challenging,” Ford said.

Bosniaks needed time away from fighting and conflict, he said. The Guard was able to provide that.

“From a Bosnia perspective, I think we created an environment that allowed them to begin to heal,” Ford said.

The experience was also beneficial for the Guard.

Roger Lempke was the adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard from 2000 to 2007. Lempke said the Guard held meetings with city leaders in Bosnia where soldiers and officers didn’t bear arms.

“You didn't want to appear that you were there to kill, if you will. You were there to help,” Lempke said. “And so you tried to show yourself in a way that was peaceful without all the heavy gear, without the armament out in front of you and things like that. That was important.”

Also, this mission was one of the first the National Guard was leading on its own.

“You had individuals that had been in the guard an entire career — 20, 30 years — had never deployed because, you just — back in those days it was unusual,” Lempke said.

Many guardsmen have full-time civilian jobs when they’re not serving. So, oftentimes they would share their knowledge with Bosnian citizens, he said.

“Our troops, they had lived everyday lives in small towns in Nebraska: farmers, electricians, plumbers. You know, it runs the gamut,” Lempke said.

With a wide variety of skills and backgrounds, the guardsmen were able to connect with the Bosnian people. Sometimes the kids would dare the soldiers to a soccer match, according to Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Henderson.

“We played soccer with the kids, too. And they're really good at playing soccer,” Henderson said.

The guardsmen held supply drives for the school children in different villages and towns. Several villages were still reeling from the war. This really put the value of education into perspective for Henderson and his kids.

“So, these kids will fight and scream to go to school. Our kids are trying to find reasons not to go to school,” Henderson said.

Prior to this mission, the Department of Defense was considering eliminating the Guard entirely, Lempke said. Following the end of the Cold War, the DOD was shrinking. The Guard was seen as a last resort in the eyes of the DOD, Lempke said. But, the Bosnian mission revealed the National Guard’s community building skills.

“I think the biggest thing was the DOD coming to understand that skill set, if you will. That you needed somebody there that wasn't 200% Army, but had some community understanding also,” Lempke said. “And so we've continued, the National Guard, to provide this kind of support.”

Proving their international peacekeeping ability was important for the Guard’s longevity, Lempke said.

The mission did have one fatality. Spc. Blake Kelly was driving a HumVee that was struck by a civilian vehicle, according to an article from the National Guard newspaper at the time.

Jerod Ideus was an E5 sergeant and one of the first on the scene following the accident. Ideus helped perform CPR and called for help.

“At that time, we called in what's called a medevac. And, that was probably my worst experience over there,” Ideus said. “And that's losing one of your teammates, and one of your battle buddies and a friend.”

Blake Kelly headshot photo.
Spc. Blake Kelly died at the age of 21 on July 29, 2003 in northern Bosnia. (Image by Mike Tobias)

Kelly worked as a turret mechanic on tanks. Ideus said Kelly was the best turret mechanic he knew. Kelly was from Shelby, Nebraska — just southeast of Columbus. Kelly died on July 29, 2003, in the accident. He was 21.

Despite the tragedy, Ideus said, he would be willing to go back to Bosnia.

“I'd like to go over to Bosnia again. It was really a really beautiful country,” he said.

In the years following the war, several Serbian leaders from that time have been convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

However, the country, now called Bosnia and Herzegovina remains fragile, according to the Associated Press, with the new federation divided into areas run by Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.