Soldier of Fortune
. . .Foreign volunteers who fought for Croatia in her struggle against Serbian aggression were known as "Internationals." What follows is an account of the misadventures of one Yankee International, myself. Noms de guerre have been employed to protect the innocent, the guilty and the downright silly.
. . .In the fall of 1991, I linked up with a rather mysterious Dutch organization I'll call NKW (its acronym) that was recruiting men to fight for Croatia. After hearing about them on Cable News Network. I had made a few phone calls and had gotten accepted. So I packed up the tools of the trade and headed for the airport.
. . .Why did this 'Nam vet want to return to battle, you ask? Well, the initiated will understand. As for the "Where have all the flowers gone?" crowd, they don't care for my sort and the feeling is entirely mutual. I don't give a cosmic damn if they like me or not.
. . .Anyhow, I didn't see much chance of landing a straight gig just then. Times were tough in New Jersey — the Mafia was laying off judges while pimps were driving Volkswagens.
. . .I was met at the Amsterdam airport by NKW organizers. A few days later, two Dutch volunteers and I departed for Croatia in a van. The next evening we arrived in Zagreb about midnight and were met by two likely looking fellows decked out in camouflage, berets and combloc sidearms.
. . .One was Croatian and the other was the Dutch combat leader of the NKW, "Wild Bill." Swaggering up to me gunfighter-style, Wild Bill asked in English, "Are you the American?"
. . ."Yup," I replied.
. . ."Are you a Vietnam veteran?"
. . ."Yup," I replied again with my usual hillbilly eloquence.
. . .Wild Bill's eyes beamed up to the size of searchlights. He commenced to wave his arms about with all the grace of a monkey fornicating a football and yelling, "I don't want no cowboys or Rambos in my outfit — just normal guys! No cowboys — no Rambos! No cowboys — no Rambos!"
. . .Being a Vietnam veteran, I’m accustomed to this sort of reaction. Thanks to the baloney sandwiches served up by Hollywood, we've gained a reputation that would make the Waffen SS puke.
. . .Wild Bill and the Croat un-assed an old black Opel with upwards of a dozen bullet holes in its body and windshield courtesy of the Yugo army — and we followed them in the van to a shabby bar; a real back-to-the-wall merc hangout, where we upended a few local brews. Yup, I was home.
. . .The Croat's name was Evisa. As scout and interpreter for the Dutch group. Evisa was in his early 30s and spoke a little broken English. Physically he looked rather wimpy, like a waiter in a cheap Italian restaurant. His eyes, however, were the real clue to what kind of guy he was. They radiated courage, humble self-confidence, depth of character and open, unfeigned friendliness toward all — a depth of character than can only come from countless generations of peasant ancestors. There wasn't an ounce of swagger or bullshit in him, as opposed to Wild Bill. Of all the guys I bumped into in Croatia, I came to respect Evisa the most both as a man and as a soldier.
. . .Later I was to find out that Evisa's parents had been "ethnically cleansed" by the Chetniks (Serb irregulars). The Chetniks cut the old folks' throats, threw the bodies into the couple's own house and Zippoed it up — charming fellows! Needless to say, this gave Evisa something of an attitude problem.
. . .We soon left the bar for Evisa's house, where his wife graciously served us cold cuts with liquor that would rot the hide off a buffalo. It was rakija, the piss-colored national drink made from plums, of which I was to become uncommonly fond.
. . .The next morning we set off for Perusic, arriving about midnight. We pulled up to a large iron gate outside a cluster of barracks surrounded by a chain link fence. The Perusic military base was to be my home for the next three months. Did I say home? "Lunatic asylum" would be more like it — except the inmates were running the joint. They all had assault rifles and were usually roaring drunk in the bargain. I never saw any rust on the Dutchies: they were always well-oiled.
. . .We entered one of the barracks and a squad of young Dutch guys in camo greeted us with smiles, backslaps and bottles of rotgut brandy. My immediate impression: I had been time-warped into some Waffen SS unit. Mostly they were blue-eyed blondes, and the constant jabbering in Dutch sounded German to me.
. . .The base itself was about two blocks long. Most buildings had broken windows and were pockmarked with bullet holes acquired at the start of the war, when the Croats hosed them with small-arms fire from the cemetery, located most symbolically across the street. The Yugo army garrison (about 60 soldiers) had thrown their gats down and their hands up. When the Yugo army commander realized he had surrendered to only 20 ragged Croats armed mostly with homemade shotguns, he committed suicide with his pistol. I assure you, gentle reader, that even if I'd been caught by a farmer in his sheep pen with my pants down, I would not have been that embarrassed.
. . .Perusic was a one-horse town, or rather had been 'til some contemptible swine ate the horse. The population was around 2,000 and the main drag was three blocks long — the kind of place where they roll up the sidewalks at sunset. About half of the people had fled; some shops were open and some boarded up. Most buildings had gaping holes half-clogged with blown snow — these gave Perusic the depressing aspect of a mini-Stalingrad.
On front near Gospic, a Croat "regular" mans Yugoslav 82mm M60 recoilless gun. Enemy Serb tanks are approximately 2 km away.
. . .The Serbs were a few klicks away across no-man's-land, just on the other side of a range of low, snow-covered hills to the east. Most were lightly armed Chetniks, Serbs who lived in Croatia and had formed themselves into guerrilla bands at the war's outbreak. The rest were regular Yugo-army studs equipped with the usual heavy weapons: tanks, arty and other cheerful stuff. These were punctual fellows who usually lobbed a few gratuitous rounds into the base and into Perusic itself at 1600 sharp. The Croats would crank the air raid siren up to a shriek. We simply hunkered in the barracks when shelled. The walls were made of reinforced concrete several inches thick and would stop anything except direct hits.
Windmill Whackos Roll Call
. . .I was the only non-Dutch citizen among the Dutch volunteers, who were employed primarily as a recon group. Guys came and went, but the average strength of the 1st Dutch Volunteers (the unit's official name) was about a dozen. They all spoke English and were as jolly a crew of pirates as ever set sail. If you think of the Dutch as cute and cuddly little guys, well ... read on. You would be well-advised to put them right at the top of your list of those not to be fucked with. Most would rather hear a bayoneted Serb scream than a pretty girl sing. All, with the exception of Crazy Joe were Dutch army vets. They were:
. . .Wild Bill: The field commander of the 1st Dutch. Wild Bill had been an NCO in the Dutch special forces, but was encouraged to leave due to a drinking problem. He was a crack shot, a born combat leader and a natural athlete. He was also a stone killer and a gun for hire who didn't give a rat's ass who the enemy was, as long as there were plenty of 'em. His resume also included desertion from the French Foreign Legion, but not before he'd seen some action in Africa where he bagged 17 restless natives, mostly just for target practice. If you don't like my opinion of Wild Bill, try the Chetniks' on for size: They buried their dead and put a price on his head.
. . .Brains: The second-in-command of the 1st Dutch and a former NCO in the Dutch army. A good soldier whose only social transgression was constantly plotting illegal get-rich-quick schemes, Keep an eye on this shifty character: It's dollars to doughnuts that one day you'll see his mug on the front page of every Dutch newspaper ... if they catch him.
. . .Stormtrooper: A skinhead bully boy fresh out of the slammer for bank robbery. Basically an alimentary canal with a foghorn mouth at one end and all the instincts of a sewer rat. He made no secret of his politics, which were three goose steps to the right of Ernst Rohm, and was forever bragging about his three uncles who had fought for the Nazis on the Russian front. The rumor mill also had it he was hiding out from some unamused Amsterdam dope dealers he had ripped off at gunpoint. Not the sort of chap you'd invite to high tea with the queen, but a dead shot with an RPG and thus a handy ace in the hole worth tolerating.
. . .Preacher: A Moluccan studying to be a monk, currently AWOL from his monastery. Obviously not playing with a full deck — admitted to me once that he was a virgin. I'm not generally partial to four-eyed Bible thumpers, but he was a good soldier who had wasted two Serbs. Maybe that was his way of sending souls to God via the fast lane; beats me,
. . .Joker: A clever, muscular fel1ow and self-admitted murderer, steroid popper, burglar, dope peddler, speed freak, con man, — black marketeer, arsonist, barroom brawler, counterfeiter, paperhanger, vandal and compulsive thief with a history of assaulting police officers. Otherwise, he was a sweet guy.
. . .Knuckles: Ex-French Foreign Legion; did a tour with the South African police. A buddy of mine, even if he did seem to be eternally on his way to the Hatter's for tea. He was ejected from the 1st Dutch for excessive fighting and drinking. Later, he drifted down to Bosnia and took an AK round through the neck.
. . .Tripper: A mellow hippie, hopelessly adrift somewhere in space/time. He was shot through an arm and leg in a firefight, but came back for more. Always ready for mischief, he was a tight buddy of mine.
. . .Romeo: A sulky malingerer whose only interests were soccer and composing passionate love letters to lady friends back in Tulip country. Another buddy of mine, he had to leave to stand trial in Holland for stabbing an Arab who rudely refused to yield his seat on a train to Romeo. (Would some kind person please send this guy the latest edition of Miss Manners' etiquette handbook.)
. . .Mad Max: An industrial-strength maniac with the personality of a hyena on laughing gas. On the lam for car theft in Holland and rumored to have murdered a Croat in Dubrovnik. Another deserter from the Frog Foreign Legion — didn't like the food. Claimed to have worked as a hit-person for the Cali nose-candy cartel and for the Neapolitan Mafia, and also to have fought for the Kurds in Iraq. You could always tel1 when he was lying — his lips were moving. We never did find out the real name of this mysterious drifter, because he didn't have a passport or any sort of ID. He entered Croatia by cutting his way through a chain-link border fence by night. He was thrown in the Klaverin (military jail) for threatening me with a pistol while smoking locoweed. That's what comes of packing your pipe too tight, I suppose. We settled our differences one rakija-soaked night and became blood brothers with the assistance of an AK bayonet.
. . .Crazy Joe: He was a man who didn't know the meaning of the word fear. Unfortunately, he didn't know the meaning of much of anything. Crazy Joe was the village idiot of the 1st Dutch, who had been rejected by the Dutch army due to a low mental score. If his IQ had been one point lower, we would have had to stick this loser in a pot and water him twice a day.
. . .Sir Lunch-A-Lot: A 250-pound blimp reportedly on the run from the law for beating a guy half to death. He collapsed on his first patrol, was sent to a hospital and was never seen again.
. . .Chugalug: A huge linebacker of a fel1ow, our demo man and a non-stop alcoholic. Needless to say, prudent soldiers took cover when he defused booby traps with his alcohol-shaky hands. A decent guy when (rarely) sober. He was expelled for going AWOL, threatening to blow up a disco with a hand grenade and for being a rummy.
. . .Snake: A scowling psychopath; a former mental hospital inmate and outlaw biker with a broken nose. We became mortal enemies and I hung the sucker out to dry. I reckon he'l1 think twice before he messes with any Yanks again.
. . .Hans: A bored Dutch businessman who "just wanted to see what war was like." The only Dutchie not running from the law, or mentally bent, downright psychopathic, dim-witted, or actively pursuing a criminal career; also, the only Dutchie whose conduct did not necessitate an assumed name to avoid embarrassing his kin. The other Dutchies, given a choice, would rather strangle a chicken than eat an ice-cream cone. How he got past the NKW selection process is a mystery to me.
. . .The Yank: Brain-damaged 173rd Airborne vet; ex-Africa merc; the ultimate Rambo; defender of Western Civilization; upholder of truth, justice and the American way; blah, blah, etc., etc. — you get the picture.
. . .A neat cocktail, eh? I don't know if these mixed nuts scared the Chetniks or not, but they damn sure scared me.
Tiptoe Through The Minefield
. . .As I noted earlier, the 1st Dutch was employed primarily as a recon unit; we ran a patrol into no-man's-land maybe every three days, searching for snipers, mapping areas, etc. Those of us not AWOL, drunk or in the Klaverin would sardine ourselves into a Land-Rover, drive to the front and kick off our diddybop by picking our way through the minefield in front of the Croat bunker line, tiptoe through the tulips-style.
. . .The terrain comprised snow-covered hills much like America's East Coast, if you subtract a few trees and add a few boulders. We moved through no-man's-land in single file, on the alert for ambushes, enemy patrols, trip wires and all the other nasty surprises that can ruin a soldier's day. Often as not, our mission was to creep up to the Serb lines and mark their bunker locations on a map.
. .The Dutch had been in several firefights with the Serbs before I arrived, By then, they had killed seven Serbs while sustaining only one wounded themselves — a score they can brag on at any water hole where soldiers gather to bend elbows. I was only fired at twice during my 90-day "Tour of Rakija" with the 1st Dutch: once when we were sniped at without effect. and again when we attempted to make a surprise raid on the Serb lines. The surprise was entirely on us — we had to skedaddle with MG rounds snapping the tree branches over our heads. Such is war.
. . .None of the Dutch left after those initial firefights, even though they were eligible to as foreign volunteers. I think this impressed me more than anything about the Dutchies. Many wannabe Rambos leg it home to Mama after they get their cherry popped in a real firefight and find out it ain't quite as antiseptic as the Hollywood version. Again, the initiated know. These gutsy Dutch guys went back for more, and I salute 'em for it.
. . .The conduct of the 1st Dutch in the field was damn good. I'd rate 'em a B-plus, maybe even an A-minus, allowing a wink or two at some of their tactical indiscretions.
. . .Their conduct off duty was another matter — certainly not best described as "Onward Christian Soldiers" — "Animal House" would be right on the money. Now, I'm a member of the David Hackworth school of military philosophy, which realistically expects soldiers to act as soldiers, not altar boys. The Dutchies, however, would give the late Pancho Villa and his banditos a run for their pesos.
Days Without Beginning
... Or End
. . .A typical day had no beginning or end that you could focus on, as the Dutch, ever a casual lot, did not believe in reveille, duty rosters, barracks police, lights out, inspections or any such silly chickenshit. They woke whenever the previous night's hangover faded, generally around 1000.
. . .The Dutchies always had a hot breakfast — coffee and a cigarette — followed by nothing until lunch in the mess hall at 1300. Drinking commenced immediately afterward. Beer was the juice of choice, but brandy or rakija were more common as they packed more bang for the dinar and were easier to smuggle past the guard at the gate.
. . .Afternoons generally consisted of runs to the liquor store to replenish our severely taxed rakija supply, the usual GI bull sessions, or playing pranks on Crazy Joe. The favorite was loosening the joints on his bunk so it collapsed when the oxygen waster sat on it. Other torments included packing his cigarettes with match heads and gunpowder so they exploded; super-gluing his enormous "Rambo survival" knife in its sheath; tying his socks in knots; emptying out his foot powder and replacing it with flour; smearing spit on the lens of his camera to ruin his pictures; disassembling his G3 and hiding the parts, or sending him off on wild goose chases — like having him to report to the Croatian base commander to be measured for a body bag.
. . .I used to think every living creature had a purpose in the grand scheme of things. Misers, for example, make splendid ancestors, while lions are the solution to Christians. The reason for Crazy Joe's existence, however, would baffle a Zen master.
. . .After dinner at 1800, serious drinking commenced and there was a party every night. Anything could happen and usually did.
At the firing range, Dutchies demonstrate comradely feelings toward their Yankee buddy by using a crude drawing of author as a target, with points for hitting his CIB and jump wings. Sniper rifle was taken from Serb no longer in need of it, due to terminal case of Dutch lead poisoning.