A Christmas Tree Lit In Bosnia

While many Americans know there are troops stationed in the Persian Gulf this Christmas season, few realize that there are other U.S. soldiers who will be far from home during the holidays. CBS News Correspondent Jose Diaz-Balart spent some time recently with American troops in Bosnia, where young men and women lit a Christmas tree and marked another year away from the U.S.

For four Christmases now, American troops have stood in the snow listening to carols about peace on Earth in a country ravaged by war. For four years, they have looked to their leaders for a justification of why they are so far from home.

"Okay, we're not home, and it's Christmas time, and we're missing our families," Maj. Gen. Kevin Byrnes said in a speech to the troops. "We've got to reflect on our reason for being here, and it's a good reason: it's the right thing to do."

Back on duty at Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia, most thoughts are turning to family.

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U.S. soldiers in Bosnia offer their holiday greetings to family on CBS 'This Morning'

"I never missed a Christmas and every year my family goes out -- it's a tradition -- to go and pick out a tree and cut it down, and I didn't get to do that this year," says Airman Brian Crytzer of the U.S. Air Force.

"Right after Thanksgiving we start decorating for Christmas, and that's something I really miss," says Capt. Dia Logan of the Oregon National Guard.

Says Cpl. Martha-Estela Garcia of the U.S. Army, "I have a four-year-old daughter, and she's at home with my parents, and I'm not going to be able to see her open her presents or wrap them or give them to her."

A convoy of U.S. troops on the road to Srebrenica. (CBS)

Everyone at Eagle Base does his or her best to grab a little piece of Christmas. Over at the PX, soldiers are doing some last-minute holiday shopping. At the mess hall, they've decked the halls for the holidays. And on the Army radio station, 101 AM Bosnia, it's "all Christmas all thtime."

Sgt. Joyce Costello of the U.S. Army, who sidelines as a DJ for the station, says she gets requests for the usual classics.

"You know - 'Hey, let me hear, I'll Be Home For Christmas, Let It Snow, or Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,'" Costello says.

This dam is the site of a massacre that killed as many as a thousand Bosnian men, filling the river with blood and bodies. (CBS)

Outside the base, there is no Christmas in Bosnia, only a sharp reminder to the troops of their mission here. Out on patrol, kids from Oregon, Texas, and Idaho pass by monuments that fly in the face of "Peace on Earth." It doesn't go unnoticed, even in this season.

"When you're standing at the edge of a mass grave where 1,200 people met their fate, had their last moments on Earth," says Sgt. Bryan Suits of the Oregon National Guard, "it puts very mundane events back in the states in stark perspective."

For soldiers like Amy Elker, the Bosnian children provide the answer to why American troops must spend another Christmas away from home.

Between two parked armored vehicles, Delta Company men and women are seen gathering at their base, Camp Dobol. (CBS)

"I just see the smiles on their faces and I drive by them, and they wave to us, and it just makes me feel like they have hope that maybe in their generation when they grow up, that there's something better for them because we're here," Elker says.

If a tree is lit next year in Bosnia, these troops will be gone and a new group of young men and women will be answering the question for themselves of why they are here.

"Because we're here," Suits says, "The outrage that occurred here will not happen today, and it won't happen on Christmas Day, and it won't happen on New Year's."

A U.S. soldier beside a Humvee. (CBS)

While virtually all of the American troops CBS News spoke to in Bosnia missed being home for the holidays, also in their thoughts were the young men and women spending Chrstmas in the Persian Gulf.

"Right now they got their helmets on and their flack vests and [they are] thinking about their life," says Airman Leif Luffman of the U.S. Air Force. "They're not thinking about missing people or being cold - they're thinking about their life."

Reported By Jose Diaz-Balart.
Photos By Susan Bean