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As US Troops Pack, Bosnia Doubts Linger

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THE tension ripples across Staff Sgt. Bob Lefebre's broad brow. A few hours before the veteran airman had been ordered to leave that day for Bosnia.

As soon as he got word, Sergeant Lefebre called to pull his daughter out of school for a rushed, early Christmas. "She was crying when she opened up the door," the single parent recounted. "Her eyes lit up when she opened her presents. But then reality set back in."

The Lefebres and the families of the 20,000 American troops bound for Bosnia are already confronting what the decision to police a peace pact on the other side of the Atlantic really means. But the American people and their political representatives are only just coming to grips with this reality. And polls show that President Clinton is out on a limb, with most Americans reluctant to follow his lead on Bosnia.

But like most interviewed at this sprawling air base in Northern California, Lefebre does not question the president's decision.

"It's my job. I swore to the Constitution," says Lefebre, a member of the 615th Air Mobility Operations Group, which sets up and runs airfields like the American base in Tuzla.

The soldier knows the basics of that complicated war but offers his own simple rationale for being there: "Everybody should have the right to walk around and have their freedom. If that means we have to help them to have the peace to do that, we have to do it."

Few facts

Down the road, the Christmas shoppers at the glittering Solano, Calif., shopping mall express little support for the mission to Bosnia. "I don't think it's our responsibility to become involved in something that's not our business," says Steve Vaughn, a young preschool teacher from nearby Vacaville.

But like others interviewed here, Mr. Vaughn has a murky understanding of what the war is about and why American soldiers are being sent. "I don't know a whole lot about it," he says of the Bosnian war, reluctantly admitting that he can't even identify the three parties to the conflict.

The response in these quiet hills north of San Francisco Bay echoes charges that the Clinton administration has failed to effectively and repeatedly communicate the reasons for sending troops to Bosnia.

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