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Pawlenty visits troops in Kosovo, listens to concerns

Gov. Tim Pawlenty personally delivered the gratitude of state residents to Minnesota National Guard members on a peace-keeping mission to Kosovo.

Pawlenty, speaking to Minnesota reporters via telephone Saturday from Kosovo, said that he and other top state officials "do these trips somewhat regularly ... to remind the troops we're still with them, that we're thinking of them, and observe and explore their mission to determine whether there's additional ways we can be helpful or supportive as public policy leaders."

Pawlenty said he and Minnesota National Guard Adj. Gen. Larry Shellito left Minnesota on Friday for the former Yugoslavian province under secrecy, a requirement of the Defense Department, which hosted the trip. While long planned, Pawlenty said it was hasitly moved up to avoid the winter-like storm that hit the state.

Currently, 412 Minnesota Army National Guard members are detached with multinational forces in Kosovo, known as the Kosovo International Security Force, and are expected to return to Minnesota in July, said Lt. Col. Michael Funk of Olivia, Minn., the Minnesota detachment's commander as commander of the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry.

"The overwhelming dynamic here remains the concern over tensions and relationships between the Serbians and the Albanians, which comprise much but not all of the population of this country," the Republican governor said.

The multinational force's role as peace-keeper heightened on Feb. 17 when Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, Funk said. The next marker comes May 11, when Serbia holds elections.

Since Feb. 17, 32 nations including the United States have recognized Kosovo as an independent nation, Pawlenty said. "Since then the concern has been that the people who are objecting or groups who are objecting to that independence or those concerned about historic tensions, relationships or hostility, could escalate that to a point where that would present an additional security challenge for the forces which are here."

Pawlenty said the Minnesota troops are part of a "peace-keeping and peace-enforcing mission. Our Minnesota National Guard is engaged in a variety of activities but one of the things that they're doing is observing and collecting information about the situation on the ground, and actively patrolling areas in Kosovo."

Minnesota troops "are presenting a peace-keeping presence that is very robust and very rigorous, and their mission has been extremely successful," the governor said.

"Their presence here has deterred incidents, deterred problems. Their presence here says to the people of Kosovo we want to be here to try to provide a secure environment so that this country can develop and grow," he added.

But the troops also serve notice that if people want to "resort to violence or intimidation or other unacceptable means to try to advance their agenda, that the KFOR United Nations forces here, including the Minnesotans, are prepared to meet that challenge and to address it ensure the security and safety of the situation on the ground."

Pawlenty was speaking from Camp Bondsteel where most Minnesota troops are stationed, but he also spent Friday and Saturday traveling by vehicle or helicopter across the country to see Minnesota troops. Saturday night, he had dinner at Camp Bondsteel with the troops and held a town hall meeting.

The deployed soldiers are from the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry headquartered in Mankato. The specific units are Headquarters and Headquarters Company in Mankato; A Company in West St. Paul; B Company in Rochester; C Company in Winona and Owatonna; D Company in Albert Lea; and F Company, 334th Brigade Support Battalion in Austin.

The town hall meeting saw soldiers raise questions about college tuition reimbursement for fees and costs, how the military calculates disability determinations, how equipment will be replaced both at home and at training sites, and the possibility of new laws to require employers to be more flexible with the spouse of a deployed soldier, Pawlenty said.

"They are extremely valuable, because many of the proposals that we bring back to the Legislature or that we change administratively through our Department of Veteran Affairs, or Department of Military Affairs in Minnesota, comes from suggestions, ideas or concerns expressed by soldiers," he said.

Funk said the 412 Minnesota soldiers are part of about 1,400 American troops in Kosovo, with the multinational force numbering 15,000 to 16,000 troops. The nation has been under U.N. control since 1999, and Pawlenty made his first visit in 2004 when several thousand Minnesota troops were stationed there.

Both Pawlenty and Shellito said they'd seen marked changes between 2004 and this weekend.

"We retraced some of the same steps," Pawlenty said. "There is some at least anecdotal evidence that things have moderately improved in terms of the economy, in terms of some of the commercial activity, at least in the cities that we were in."

The national unemployment rate dropped from 80 percent to 60 percent, "that's still a horrific challenge for the country to have that much idleness and unemployment, but that represents a significant step of progress," the governor said.

As Shellito's third trip to Kosovo, the major general said that as the plane flew in, "you could just look at the fields and the crops that are being planted, the work and the care that they're taking in the homestead is very notable. They have to do more work, but it was definitely an improvement."

Walking the streets of Patina, which he and Pawlenty had also done in 2004, Shellito said that "the storefronts were much cleaner, newer, the degree of vitality. Again, it's a steady work in progress."

Shellito called the Minnesota troops' presence "outstanding," that the citizen soldiers are also advising the Kosovans on such matters as agriculture.

"You can see it on the faces of the Kosovo people as they saw our troops," Shellito said. "It was that of respect and sincere appreciation that they were there to make that difference."

Developing relationships with the Kosovo people has been key, said Funk. "The soldiers of Minnesota know how to treat people right. They have developed a reputation for fairness, and they are viewed as honest brokers by the individual, be they Albanian or Serbs."

The next challenge is the May 11 elections in Serbia, "which may cause some stress within Kosovo," Funk said.

At this point, no additional forces are anticipated to be needed for those elections, Funk said, but NATO does have troops on standby, should they be needed for extra security. "We could still see considerable tension in Kosovo well into the future," Funk said.

While these troops and other Minnesota National Guard members are deployed in 14 nations around the world, there are still 13,000 National Guard members at home in Minnesota should a domestic need arise, such as during spring floods, Pawlenty said.

The state's troops have in recent years seen more deployments than in history, outside of World War II, but moral remains high, Shellito said. A year ago, 4,000 of the state's 13,000 troops were deployed -- most of them in Iraq -- but at this time about 1,400 are deployed abroad.

"The morale of the troops here has been remarkable -- very good," Shellito said of the troops who were called into duty last summer. "They're very proud of what they're doing. They have a sense of doing something that is worthwhile and important, which is a key factor."

In looking at future deployments, he said each is assessed separately. "We're working on making sure that no one individual or group of individuals is deployed two or three times while others have not been deployed. ... We're making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity and no one's overburdened versus not."

Minnesota troops "are holding up well," he said, with another 700 Minnesota National Guard troops to be deployed this summer to Iraq. "Remarkably well. And they're proud of their service. It just needs to be a little more refined management."

Minnesota's reintegration program and family support efforts have been very successful, he said. "Any financial crisis (with a soldier's family), we can respond to it and assist them quickly," he said. "Minnesota and the communities have stepped forward."

Taking care of a soldier's family needs "will ease an awful lot of concern and angst as they are away from their families," Shellito said.

Pawlenty was scheduled to return to Minnesota Sunday.