Meet the Only American Soldier in Sarajevo; Army Sergeant from Iowa, Assigned to U.N. Unit, Wants to Return – with U.S. Forces

The Washington Post
January 24, 1993

SARAJEVO – Sgt. Richard Roth is a stealth soldier.

While the Pentagon and White House have fretted about sending armed forces into Bosnia, Roth, a blunt-talking, Marlboro-smoking sergeant from Maquoketa, Iowa, slipped into Sarajevo as part of the U.N. peace-keeping force here. Roth, 28, is the only American GI based in Bosnia’s mortar-infested capital.

“My commander told me to keep safe, keep my head down, and don’t embarrass the flag,” Roth chuckled. “Nobody wanted me to be an embarrassment.”

Roth is an oddity, an American soldier in a hellish place that American policy makers have opted to avoid. If Bosnia ever turns into a place where U.S. soldiers tread, history should probably note whose combat boot made the first footprint.

“Usually I don’t wear a jacket — I want my flag to show,” Roth smiled, referring to the Stars and Stripes patch on the left shoulder of his fatigue shirt.

Before his deployment here, Roth was assigned to NATO’s Central Army Group in Heidelberg, Germany. A few months ago, several spots opened for NATO soldiers in Heidelberg to go to Bosnia as part of the U.N. Protection Force. Roth eagerly signed up.

“I felt cheated that I didn’t go to the {Persian} Gulf War,” he explained over a cup of coffee at U.N. headquarters here.

Roth, who is divorced and has been in the Army for eight years, tried to scare off his married colleagues in Heidelberg by warning that they could die in Bosnia. He was sent to Bosnia, but only to a U.N. base in Kiseljak, outside of besieged Sarajevo.

Approximately a dozen American soldiers and officers are based in Kiseljak, the planning headquarters for the 8,000-man U.N. force. Some of them visit Sarajevo, but none are based here. It is believed that other Americans, cloaked in secrets rather than uniforms — also visit Sarajevo.

After a few weeks, Roth decided that Kiseljak was boring — and that he wanted in on the action. One night he went drinking in Kiseljak with a Canadian soldier unhappy at being based in Sarajevo. After a few beers, Roth persuaded the Canadian to swap assignments with him, a paperwork process that took two weeks. Sarajevo became Roth’s new home.

Roth has been here for a month. What shocks him the most is not the destruction of Sarajevo — he said he was ready for that — but the outside world’s reluctance to do anything about it. He has observed that most of the Bosnians he meets ask why America is sitting on the fence.

“Americans always try to do what’s right,” he said. “We’ve got to pick sides. We should be doing something.”

He has a clerical job that keeps him away from the front line. But fighting often comes to him in the form of bullets bouncing off the armored personnel carriers that he travels around town in. And the Serbs lob artillery shells into Sarajevo all the time.

It doesn’t bug him. Roth has a soldier’s outlook on life. There may be a bullet or mortar out there with his name on it, he says. If so, there’s nothing he can do to avoid it.

His life revolves around the Delegates’ Club, an attractive villa that was the Serbian political headquarters in Sarajevo before the war. Now it’s the residence and operations center for the U.N. commander in Bosnia, Gen. Philippe Morillon.

Roth occasionally leaves the Delegates’ Club to visit a Bosnian radio station a few hundred yards down the road where a couple of female reporters work. He brings them American magazines, and they talk about music.

The walk takes him along a devastated street with overhead wires for trolleys hanging to the ground. There are bullet-riddled streetcars on the side of the road, and every building along the way shows traces of at least a few Serb shells. There’s a park nearby denuded of trees — they were cut down by people who needed firewood to stay warm.

It is Roth’s world. He does not go jogging — that’s not allowed — and he is required to wear his uniform whenever he goes out. By choice, he does not carry a weapon when he goes to the radio station, the only place he visits in his spare time.

Roth is scheduled to leave Sarajevo Wednesday and return to Kiseljak. He is tired of having a blue U.N. helmet on his head, tired of not having a “mission,” tired of dodging bullets and watching a country’s misery rather than doing something about it. He does not like to turn the other cheek.

“I’d like to see this war end as soon as possible,” he said. “How it’s done, I don’t know. I’m not paid enough to figure that out. But I’d be glad to come back in as a U.S. soldier.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.