Army Spc. Robert Gonzalez can't wait to get home to Modesto from his nearly yearlong deployment overseas, but the 19-year-old soldier says he's going to miss a few things about Kosovo just the same.
Like the food, a mostly meaty cuisine with Eastern European flavors foreign to his palate.
He and his colleagues in the Modesto-based 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment often were welcome guests among Kosovars, who opened their homes and dining rooms to the California soldiers.
"It's different from what I see back home," Gonzalez said. "The kids are always waving at you. You don't see that at home.
"You feel like a celebrity over here."
About 150 other celebrities from the battalion's Modesto and Oakdale companies are on their way home. They were joined in Kosovo by National Guard companies from Bakersfield and El Centro, which filled out the ranks after two other companies from the 1-184th deployed to Iraq through August.
The Kosovo contingent should be back by Thanksgiving, but soldiers likely will be arriving in small numbers over the next few weeks.
"I'm going to kiss my wife, give her a big hug," said Sgt. Marco Rios, 32, a Modesto man who moved to Southern California a few months before his deployment began last winter.
The soldiers are looking back on a safe year in which their jobs centered on policelike work, making a visible presence to tamp down tensions between Serb and Albanian ethnic groups who fought each other in a bloody war a decade ago.
"We're basically like cops," said Lt. Col. Dirk Levy of Ceres, who leads the battalion. "Just the fact we're around deters bad stuff from happening."
His soldiers spent most of their time in southern Kosovo provinces around the city of Gjilan.
Their tasks included trekking on foot looking for signs of human or drug trafficking. Levy said the soldiers seized a few caches of money and drugs over the past year.
Levy described the atmosphere in the south as mostly calm, but the soldiers also spent a tense six weeks in a northern province where lingering feuds between Serbs and Albanians remain palpable.
"It's a very turbulent place because you never know if unrest is going to break out," he said.
About 10,000 Albanians were killed in fighting with Serbs, a conflict that ended in 1999 with a 78-day NATO bombing campaign. About 1,000 Serbs died, as well.
"The Kosovar Albanians view Americans as saviors," Levy said. "They felt the Serbs were about to exterminate them. So when they see you and the flag, they shake your hand and say, 'Thank you for saving us.'
"The Kosovar Serbs are a little more reserved," Levy continued. "They still feel the world's against them. When you go into Serbian villages, some will wave, but the older ones will give you that look, 'Hmm, Americans.' "
This tour was Levy's second assignment in Kosovo. He found the country a safer place, a development he attributed to the rising professionalism of the nation's police force.
Still, the country has a long way to go.
"This is a borderline Third World nation," Levy said. "Kosovo is not quite buildings on stilts, but a lot of the stuff missing here is basic necessity stuff — trash collection, sewage. How can you build a society with the basic stuff missing?"
Those differences between home and the Balkans stood out for the Guard soldiers. They said they were struck by the lush, rural landscape they observed when they left their base.
"It has a very rich history," said Rios, who spent a year in Baghdad with the 1-184th in 2005. "There's been turmoil in the region for generations."
"Every group we worked with was very friendly, very inviting and sharing their cultures with us," he said.
He and other soldiers said their deployment gave them an opportunity to prepare for more difficult assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan in a safer setting. They lived on a base with troops from four NATO allies and frequently conducted training operations.
"We were trying to keep a safe and secure environment for the people," said Gonzalez, a 1998 Modesto High School graduate. He aims to join another unit to deploy to the Middle East next year. "There was a civil war a few years ago, now that we're here that's stopped."
Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.