By Paul Wood
URBANA — The Army sent Sgt. First Class Stephen Ostwinkle to Bosnia in 2003, and he was scheduled to work with Croatian troops in Afghanistan.
In Bosnia, he “basically cleaned house” by straightening up a personnel organization that had become disorganized, eventually dealing with more than 300 troops.
“One of the funny things is that no one knew we had civilian mechanic contractors working at the Sarajevo airport. It left me amazed,” he said.
No assignment could have been more hasty.
One week before Thanksgiving, his training officer came out of her office that Thursday afternoon and “asked what I was doing for the next several months.”
“I thought it was an odd question, and she was joking around with me,” he said.
Three previous people that were picked for a position had medical or other issues.
“I asked, ‘When do I leave?’ The next week, I was training at Fort Benning.”
It took about a month to get the office up to standard and running properly, said Ostwinkle, who most recently has worked in human resources for ROTC at the University of Illinois and now at Eastern Illinois University. He lives in Urbana.
Ostwinkle was a runner and coach before he enlisted.
Among his running achievements: Iowa state cross-country champion; NJCAA cross-country All-American; National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics cross-country All-American; and a Nike, Avia and Asics-sponsored athlete. He still runs a little.
He was managing a sporting goods store in La Crosse, Wis., when he enlisted, in part for the education benefits.
“I initially was just going in for my three years, getting out and coming back to University of Wisconsin-La Crosse for grad school,” he said.
But patriotism also played a role.
“My grandfather immigrated from Germany in the late 1800s and lived with us growing up, and always stated how important it was to serve and be a good citizen,” Ostwinkle said.
He joined in 1987 at the age of 30, and instead of three years, served on active duty in the Army for 11 years. Then he served as active reserve for the Minnesota National Guard for another 11 years.
He was deployed to Bosnia from November 2003 to July 2004. At Camp Butmir outside Sarajevo, he held a joint service assignment, supervising the Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps personnel, as well as working with European troops.
The Bosnian mission was primarily keeping the peace.
“Since we mainly worked on Camp Butmir, we were safe,” Ostwinkle said, “trying to get the economy up and running, improve their infrastructure, mine clearance and maintain peace. Of course, we were still trying to capture war criminals to face the International Criminal Tribunal.”
After all the danger, “I believe that most people were very glad we were there to assist and restore peace,” he said.
“We performed humanitarian missions while assigned, including painting the children’s wing of the local hospital, assisted with rebuilding homes,” he said.
He got involved with an international organization that “provided care to children affected by the war — mainly losing parents and family,” he added.
He has continued that effort.
“Every time I have traveled to Europe afterward, I always have stopped and assisted for a couple of days. I also have kept in contact with some of the former residents,” Ostwinkle said.
He was selected to serve on a team to train Croatian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009.
“Croatia was performing the requirements to become part of NATO. One of the military tasks were to train the Afghan Army,” he said, serving as part of a team to assist and oversee the trainers.
In his last assignments, he was assigned to NATO in Brunssum, Netherlands, and bases in the United States.
Ostwinkle was injured in a training session for the Croatian mission and left the Guard two months later. He continues his service with the ROTC and last year was named Human Resource Administrator of the Year for Cadet Command.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at email@example.com.