Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
When Col. Arieyeh Austin was a young lieutenant, he said he was excited to deploy with his company to Bosnia and Herzegovina in support of Operation Joint Forge, but he was unprepared for what the mission would entail.
“Upon arrival, we were immediately given an order to report to Hill 721, near a small village called Srebrenica. My mission was simply to secure the area until the civilian entities that were working there could complete their forensic work. I had no idea what that meant at the time,” Austin said. “Once (our company) arrived, we completed our priorities of work and secured the area, tying into an existing mine field on one of my flanks. After gaining overwatch over the objective, I gave my men the rest of the night off, but nothing could prepare me for what we were to see the next day.”
What Austin and his men witnessed the next day was the arrival of nearly two dozen doctors and scientists who began exhuming thousands of bodies of Muslim men and children killed in the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War in 1995.
Austin, who currently serves as chief of training for Operations Group A, Mission Command Training Program, shared this story during his remarks at the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth Days of Remembrance observance April 19 in Eisenhower Hall’s DePuy Auditorium.
“I, unfortunately, along with many other people in this room, have the unfortunate knowledge of what death looks like. We’ve all had to deal with it at some personal level because of our service,” he said. “But I don’t think many people are prepared to honestly see what the effects of genocide look like.”
Austin said genocide looks like the lining up of body after body, sometimes enough to fill a room the size of DePuy Auditorium, and smells like a pig farm as bodies decompose.
“That’s what genocide looks like. That’s what genocide smells like. I will never forget that until the day I die,” Austin said. “This experience solidified in me forever the desire to serve mankind and to protect it against its worst tendencies.”
Austin also told the story of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds who was captured with thousands of soldiers during World War II and risked his own life to save nearly 200 Jewish POWs from Nazi persecution.
Austin said events like the Srebrenica Massacre and the Holocaust can only be stopped when someone like Edmonds steps up to say, “no more.” Austin said that’s the role of the dual nature of military service.
“Our modern military was forged in the fight against Nazi tyranny. To defeat Hitler, we mobilized all of the strength that we could muster, and in that effort, we witnessed many of our finest hours as a military and, indeed, as a country,” Austin said. “American forces not only brought freedom to the survivors of Nazi horrors, they also made sure that in its aftermath, the world would know what had happened because we continue to confess our collective past, preserve its historical legacy through the preservation of essential icons and stories and as a profession, honor those who deserve acknowledgement.
“Days of Remembrance raises awareness … and clearly illustrates the roots and ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping in any society. More importantly, silence and indifference to the suffering of others or to the infringement of civil rights in any society can, however unintentionally, perpetuate these problems,” he said. “Soldiers and Army civilians swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. This oath subordinates us, just as Master Sergeant Edmonds in World War II, to the laws of the nation and its elected and appointed leaders, creating a distinct civil-military relationship.
“Fulfilling that oath, leaders will have to face and overcome fear, danger and physical and moral adversity such as we did at Hill 721, while simultaneously caring for those they lead as well as protecting the ideals we as a nation hold so dear. Personal courage encompasses all of these facets, to include our ethical necessity to provide humane treatment to civilians of all cultures or backgrounds that we come into contact with. As stewards of our profession, I would ask you now, today, ‘How do you want to be remembered when history reflects on your actions?’”
To close his remarks, Austin prayed the Jewish Kaddish, or “Mourner’s Prayer,” in memory of all those who died during the Holocaust and other acts of genocide throughout history.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the observance attendance was limited. To view Austin’s full remarks, visit the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center Facebook page.