Half a world away from the airstrikes over Yugoslavia, the crisis in Kosovo seeped into a high school gym in Prince William County yesterday as 210 Junior ROTC students heard Defense Secretary William S. Cohen defend the NATO bombing campaign and later debated what he had said.
Cohen, who visited Woodbridge High School to watch the award-winning cadets perform military drills, said the United States had no choice but to intervene against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's drive to kill Kosovo's ethnic Albanians or force them out of their homes.
"In Kosovo, we have a situation in which one man has decided that a whole group of people should be expunged from the face of the Earth--that they should be ethnically cleansed," said Cohen, addressing the JROTC cadets and 1,500 other students assembled behind them. "We cannot continue to watch this kind of a campaign being carried out," Cohen said. "This is not the mark of civilized countries. This cannot stand."
Among the cadets, however, opinions about the U.S. role in Kosovo were as varied as among the public at-large. In interviews after Cohen's appearance, many of the students said they have been thinking a lot about the future course of the war because they plan to join the armed services. They also said the NATO bombing has been discussed in their military history, government and English classes.
Cohen's words struck a chord in Enrique Corretjer, a 17-year-old senior who thinks that U.S. ground troops eventually will have to go to Kosovo.
"It's sad that we actually have to go to war to stop this man," Corretjer said, referring to Milosevic. "We must show action, and I guess action speaks louder than words right now."
But Kelly Butcher, an 18-year-old junior who wants to go to either West Point or the Virginia Military Institute after she graduates, said she doesn't think the United States should be involved in a conflict between Serbs and Albanians.
"I don't think we should be over there," said Butcher, who will become battalion executive officer for Woodbridge's JROTC unit in the fall. "There's been a civil war between them for a long time, and I don't think it's any of our business."
Emily Thayer, a 16-year-old sophomore, said she was worried about the prospect of U.S. casualties in a ground war that might go on much longer than planned.
"We know what to do when we get in, but how do we get out?" said Thayer, who plans to join the Army. "I have friends in the armed services. I don't want them to go in there and risk getting shot and killed for something that isn't even our conflict."
Comfort Agyemfra, a 19-year-old junior, said she is prepared to go to the Balkans if called to serve there.
"I'd be ready to go," said Agyemfra, who plans to be an Army nurse. "I think it's very sad that history is repeating itself. I like what NATO is doing, because you can't kill someone because of what he believes in."
Rodolfo Delacruz, an 18-year-old senior, also defended the bombing campaign and said Cohen's words were "inspiring." He added that the civilian casualties from the NATO airstrikes are inevitable.
"Accidents are going to happen," Delacruz said. "I don't feel Milosevic should be cleansing the Albanians. Someone should stand up."
After the presentation in the gym by the armed and unarmed JROTC drill teams, Cohen praised the school's six-year-old program.
"You should be enormously proud of this JROTC program," Cohen said, drawing cheers from the audience. "It is one of the finest I've ever seen."
CAPTION: Junior ROTC drill team members Yolanda Lopez, right, Chinadoll Rambaran, Jetuane White and Sara Hess perform for Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.