Originally created 08/18/99

Aiken officer prepares for Kosovo



AIKEN -- Looking for adventure and accepting the promise of $100,000 in tax-free money, an Aiken public safety officer has quit the force for a spot on the international peacekeeping force headed to war-torn Kosovo.

Fisher Strom left the Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field on Tuesday morning for a week's training in Texas. He will leave from there for Kosovo as one of 450 experienced officers from throughout the country to accept the one-year mission: restore law and order and train the Kosovo police force in law enforcement techniques.

"My biggest concern is the living conditions, because so much has been blown up. We're going to live in a village," Mr. Strom said late Monday as he packed his bags at his Edgefield County home. "It'll be an adventure."

The U.S. State Department advertised the positions several months ago, looking for police officers eager to accept a "challenging and rigorous assignment to serve with the International Police Task Force in Kosovo as International Police Monitors."

Mr. Strom is a five-year veteran of the Aiken Department of Public Safety who also served on a drug task force and patrolled streets for police agencies in Newberry, S.C., and Charleston, S.C.

He said he was ready for a new challenge.

"I guess we will be fighting crime in the streets of Kosovo -- if they got streets left," he said.

The force will use interpreters to train Kosovo residents to police their own towns, showing them police procedures and evidence-gathering techniques, Mr. Strom said.

The peacekeeping force will have a difficult job. News agencies reported this week that the existing international force launched a clampdown on ethnic Albanian criminal gangs trying to force the remaining Serb population from the territory.

Consider other action by the IPTF this week:

Two 15-year-old girls were arrested and detained in connection with hand grenade attacks on Serb properties in an area south of Pristina.

Several elderly women living on their own in Pristina were killed after refusing to give up their properties.

British soldiers in the IPTF shot three Albanians who were caught attacking Serb property.

To join the peacekeepers, Mr. Strom went through a grueling application process that challenged his physical and mental abilities to handle conflict.

DynCorp, the Virginia-based company contracted by the State Department to find and train the officers, checked Mr. Strom's resume. The company also searched his credit record and conducted a thorough background check that included talking to his old high school friends.

Then, the company conducted a telephone interview and gave him a 200-question psychological test. For every 2,000 applicants, only 100 qualified.

"I guess I passed," Mr. Strom said.

Several other officers from the city of Aiken, Aiken County and Augusta applied for the job but were either turned down or withdrew.

After he passed, the next step for Mr. Strom was selling the idea to his wife, Suzanne, and two teen-age children, 16-year-old Zack and 18-year-old Jenny. Zack is a junior at Strom Thurmond High School, and Jenny is a student at the College of Charleston.

Mrs. Strom, who married her husband three years ago, was not happy with the idea of being away from him for so long.

The first words out of her mouthwere, "Do you realize there's a war going on over there?

"I've been like the ostrich syndrome," she said. "I try not to think about it. He says don't worry about it. He'll keep his head down."

The lure of the job is half adventure, half money, Mrs. Strom said. The tax-free salary of $100,000 is equal to five years' take-home pay from the Aiken Department of Public Safety. That will pay off the family's mortgage, Mr. Strom said.

Communicating with family could be a problem in the rural terrain of Kosovo, but letters can be delivered on a regular basis. Mr. Strom also will be able to take up to 18 days off to return home or meet his family in locations outside the country.

Besides his police work, Mr. Strom said he feels prepared for the task because he lives on a 30-acre farm in Edgefield County, where his family raises livestock and resides in a home they constructed.

His wife calls him a survivalist, a man who knows how to "make do."

But Mr. Strom admits there is a part of him that is unsure about the adventure to come.

"I don't really know how anybody gets prepared for this. They tell you to be ready to camp out for the next 12 months," Mr. Strom said. "It just sounded like a big challenge."

Mr. Strom had to resign his position on the Aiken police force, but he said he is hopeful he will find work when he returns.

DynCorp spokeswoman Charlene Wheeless said the company orchestrated similar missions in Haiti and Bosnia.

"There's no doubt it's a good opportunity for the officers to expand their knowledge and experience base," she said. "It will make them a better person when they come back, and they'll come back a better police officer."

Greg Rickabaugh is a reporter for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.