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  July 19, 1999

Night-vision patrol

By Henry Cuningham
Military editor
Three men crouched in the darkness in front of a house on a city street in Kosovo. A passing U.S. soldier waved at them.

Staff photo by Marcus Castro
Stray dogs follow soldiers from Company A, 2nd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment during a night patrol through Vitina.

The soldiers in the foot patrol were wearing helmet-mounted night-vision goggles that bring darkened settings into clear view in bright shades of green.

The soldiers were from a squad of the 2nd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg.

Soldiers constantly walk the streets of towns throughout the U.S. sector of southeast Kosovo as part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force. The patrols try to ensure that the towns remains peaceful. They pay special attention to neighborhoods with heavy populations of Serbs, who are in the minority and are often targets for Albanians.

Night-vision devices use a combination of physics, optics and electronics to amplify available light.

U.S. soldiers in the 1990s are using about the third generation of night-vision technology. The technology dates to the 1980s.

The second generation was 1970s technology that produced dimmer images in the light of a quarter moon.

Soldiers in Vietnam used Starscopes, the first generation of night-vision technology that let soldiers see dim, faint shapes. The technology was more cumbersome and less reliable.

The paratroopers of World War II landed by parachute in darkness and did not know if a rustle in the bushes was friend, foe or livestock.

The U.S. military likes to say that it ‘‘owns the night.’’

‘‘NVGs’’ are a normal piece of equipment on Fort Bragg at night. Foot soldiers wear them. Humvee drivers turn off their headlights and roll through the sandy back roads on training exercises. Helicopter pilots fly slightly above the treetops at night with the devices.

Each individual set costs several thousand dollars and is considered a ‘‘sensitive item’’ like a weapon. If one pair is lost, the entire unit could find itself confined while military investigators try to find out what happened to it.

While the U.S. military may own the night, that does not mean that other people don’t own a piece of it.

Staff photo by Marcus Castro
Staff Sgt. Brent Hickman crouches beside a trash bin and radios in to report sounds of gunfire in the town.

Third-generation night-vision devices that can be used in as little light as starlight can be bought over the Internet from a civilian company for about $4,700. A night rifle scope goes for less than $3,300. Soldiers in places like Kosovo realize that someone may be watching them at night from one of the many balconies above the city streets.

‘‘They’ve got everything we’ve got,’’ one soldier said. ‘‘Their black market works as well as our market.’’


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Local material copyright (c) 1999 Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer-Times