Bringing hope to the Balkans

May. 05, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

As they work to help Kosovo heal from a brutal conflict, members of a multinational battle group serving there bear witness to both triumph and tragedy.

“You change, as much as you try to change the environment for the better,” said Maj. Chip Sturgis, Multinational Battle Group East civil affairs officer for TF Falcon KFOR 16. He added, “If you knew me before Kosovo, you’d see differences. It’s been cathartic.”

Sanford man James Jernigan, chief warrant officer 4, has also been serving in the country since September as part of a peacekeeping mission. War erupted in the region in the 1990s amid religious and ethnic tensions.

“We’re just here to help the people any way we can, above and beyond what we do as soldiers,” James said.

Kosovo has been widely recognized as as a sovereign and independent entity since 2008, according to the U.S. Department of State, but Jernigan said many citizens are still struggling — lacking such basics as clothing and toiletries.

Added his wife, Donna, a rehabilitation nurse who works as an adjunct faculty member at Central Carolina Community College, “Things you and I take for granted — heat in the place we live, having warm clothing to wear — those things just aren’t readily available.”

That’s where Operation Balkans Family & Friends comes in. OP BFF is an outreach organization working to collect charitable donations for those in need.

“What we’ve been trying to do is raise awareness in our country, and let people know the plight of these folks,” she said. “Some of the things we throw away would be greatly utilized.”

Because of her healthcare expertise, Donna was asked to serve a special role in the project.

“There was a tremendous need for items for people with disabilities,” she said — namely cushions for wheelchairs.

Since her involvement began in October of last year, Donna said, “We’ve gotten nine highly specialized cushions donated so far” — largely through the generosity of the Colorado-based ROHO Group. While some cushions may cost no more than $25, she said, others are priced in the thousands of dollars.

In the effort to assist Kosovo’s disabled, some of whom were injured during the upheaval in the country, Donna said the U.S. volunteers have partnered with HandiKos — an advocacy group in Kosovo that serves that population.  

James, whose brother was wheelchair-bound most of his adult life, said this particular outreach is especially meaningful to him.

“For them to have a custom chair, to see the smiles on their faces — it means the world to me,” he said. 

The Jernigans are appealing to Donna’s rehabilitation colleagues nationwide, and the local public, to pitch in for the people of Kosovo. The extensive list of items that Operation BFF is collecting includes, but is not limited to, baby and children’s clothes, children’s shoes and winter boots, children’s pajamas, children’s sleeping bags, coloring books, pillows, blankets, quilts, art supplies, office supplies, construction supplies, sporting equipment, and hygiene kits and supplies (children and adults).

Those items can be shipped to Operation Balkans Family & Friends, KFOR 16, APO AE, 09340; monetary contributions can not be accepted. Those with questions or concerns can reach Sturgis at operationbff@yahoo.com or Donna at (919) 498-2214. Donna said she is also willing to speak to local organizations about the effort, and those willing to donate other specialty medical equipment can also contact her.

Although admittedly not glamorous items, Jim said, “the needs are of such a nature that anything would be gratefully appreciated.” He acknowledged one Broadway dentist, Dr. Eldon Sloan, and his son, who have already contributed toothbrushes and toothpaste for children.

“It’s little things, just trying to make the world better,” James said.

Beyond their mission of preserving peace and stability, Donna said, her husband and his fellow soldiers are committed to improving lives.

“It’s nice to see how much the soliders working there care about the community they’re working in,” she said. “Soldiers who volunteered to do this really felt a connection with the people they were trying to protect.”

While he and James will soon move to a different battle group in Kosovo, Sturgis said he wants to see Operation BFF continue.

“I have addressed it with my successor, and it’ll be part of the activities I share with her,” Sturgis said. “I will encourage that they consider [continuing] it for the good will and community it generates.”

James said he has been touched and overwhelmed by the support from people back home — who have been willing to give to others on another continent who they will likely never meet.  

“One part of being American is we try to leave things better than we found them,” he said. “That’s one of the things that makes me proud to be an American and an American soldier.”

More information on HandiKos — an advocacy group in Kosovo that serves that population