His first mission was an operation in the Persian Gulf. During the 1990s, he witnessed the civil war in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and the devastating conflict in the African Congo.
The 68-year-old war veteran Ladislav Sornas gained experience first in the Czechoslovak and later in the Czech army and served many years on foreign missions. Although he is now in civilian clothes, he is still involved in the topic and acts as vice-chairman of the Association of War Veterans, which offers medical and social assistance to soldiers.
In an interview for Seznam Zprávy, he describes the meaning he found in foreign peace operations, as well as the problems war veterans face when they leave for civilian life.
What were your initial motivations when you decided to serve the state?
No one decides for that, suddenly you look and you are there. I joined the army in 1974. Suddenly I found myself in Vyškov, where there was a Ground Army Military Academy, and after four years we were discharged as lieutenants to the unit. There were thousands like me.
However, after the revolution in 1989, our army started going on foreign missions. The very first one – when we were still Czechoslovakia, just before Christmas 1990 – was to help little Kuwait, which had been taken over by Saddam Hussein. OFthe Persian Gulf War began and operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm began. In the end, we were there for about 10 months, I was with the chemical battalion. And the Americans were lucky enough to be on our side and win for the first time. (laughter)
How did you experience this first foreign experience?
First, I was a young guy, I was 35 and it was something completely new. No classroom, practice, crap and then lunch. There we were left to ourselves. There were 200 of us in total, 100 of whom were regulars who had served a year and a half and could go on active duty, so they were 19-year-old boys, but they worked brilliantly.
And more missions followed…
After we came back from the Persian Gulf, in 1992 the civil war started in the former Yugoslavia. The first battalion went there and they were in a UN mission, the UNPROFOR mission (United Nation Protection Forces, editor’s note). And the task was to keep the two hostile parties apart.
I was there then in the role of deputy commander for logistics, when we were in charge of equipment, spare parts, food, water, fuel, so I still had work to do. There was no time to even be afraid of that. These people work hard, even when they are not shooting, they work hard all the time.
What experience did you take away from the then fragmented and war-torn Yugoslavia?
I met a lot of good Serbs and a lot of good Croats there. And in addition, I returned there in 1997 as part of the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The goal then was to organize post-war elections, and I spent a year there. Beautiful work, because you are the referee, you are not on any side, because it is not even what side to be on. When brother shoots brother, which one is right?
Everyone wants their own. Everyone is right, but at the same time no one is, and you have to solve it peacefully. Don’t shoot. As I watch the current conflicts of war, I have yet to hear anyone say, “Let’s immediately cease fire.”
Starting a war is a terrible mistake – and continuing it for a long time is an even bigger mistake. During the war conflict, people die and everyone who is in that place has a mom, dad, many have children. The idea should be: Let’s stop firing, stop fighting and come to an agreement, and that agreement can easily last five years. After all, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, whether it was Croatia, Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, all lost during that civil war.
An agreement should be reached, a compromise should be found. After all, we all have to be able to live next to each other. And that’s what I think makes sense. And you will never lose that if you believe there should be peace.
You mentioned the psychologically demanding situations that a soldier encounters on similar missions. How did you personally experience them at that time? As already mentioned today, many war veterans take home not only physical problems, but also psychological ones.
I keep hearing that someone has mental problems. But I personally don’t have any. I remember a case when we needed to go for engines. I sent our soldiers to some race for them, they went there, but on the way they were caught by the Serbs in Bosnia and tortured mentally. They put them in the house, they had to kneel there, sometimes they took one out, shot it and came back without it. However, when they came back and the commander reported it to me, I said: “Good story, fine. And where are the engines you went for?’
He called me an idiot and didn’t eat for a week. His soldiers told me he just sits, smokes and drinks. So I went to him and asked what was wrong with him. At that time, we didn’t even know that there was a post-traumatic syndrome.
He was then supposed to go somewhere to Zagreb and came back with a stomach ache. So I sent someone else there. And of course, I eventually found out that there are people who are sensitive too. He was right then, I wasn’t. Someone is really more human, someone less. And the more sensitive one can have similar problems, even though they shouldn’t have them, because it didn’t fit there.
Where did you go on your last mission?
In 2000, a conflict flared up in Africa, in the Congo. Although nobody even registered it here, it was difficult for the people there. A lot of countries on one side, a lot of countries on the other side, and the UN wanted to stop the fighting – which it eventually did – so it sent peacekeepers there.
However, this mission continued for many years, and the country gradually calmed down even for ordinary people. I always look at it through their eyes, because I am also just an ordinary person. The common man does not need war. And not at all civil.
Were you frustrated by the consequences of war conflicts? Maybe even to the point that service in the army stopped making sense to you?
It made sense to me that there should be peace and those people could live. And I didn’t care if it was diesel or the beautiful Helena. Especially when the shooting stops. It makes sense for the military, especially the UN or NATO, to contain the madmen who want to fight in the name of anyone at any cost. An agreement should be reached, a compromise should be found. After all, we all have to be able to live next to each other. And that’s what I think makes sense. And you will never lose that if you believe there should be peace.
Separation from family is a toll you have to pay
Was the Congo your last mission?
Yes, then I retired to civilian life because I was too old.
And in retrospect, what do you rate as the most difficult thing you experienced during your service on foreign operations? Was it perhaps a long separation from loved ones?
I thought about it, but you don’t realize that isolation is bad until it’s too late, because when you’re in a car and there are other people around you, you’re not isolated. But a lot of soldiers who were on missions lost their families. I also. Because we got used to being without them.
For those of us who don’t have this experience, it’s probably unimaginable how much it can tear you out of the reality of everyday life.
Yes, it will rip you off and it’s definitely wrong. Being away for a year can’t be healthy for interpersonal relationships. But it’s a tax you have to pay.
However, there are also colleagues who are the exact opposite and celebrate golden weddings. In the end, it’s not just about the mission, but mainly about the two people.
How was your return from the last mission? What emotions did you feel at the time?
I froze for a moment. But then I said that the army is not a retirement home after all, that you can’t stay there like before until 55 and then go straight to retirement. It was a different time and it’s a shame, a soldier must be a smart guy and not a limping one with a navel. So I went to civilian life.
Have you personally encountered any health problems, injuries or consequences of the repeated workload?
Nevertheless, Minister Černochová mentioned in her speech today that many war veterans face a number of problems after leaving the army, from the consequences of injuries to the difficulty of finding a new job.
Yes, she was definitely right about that. When a person ends up in the army, it is difficult for him to find a job because he has completely dropped out of civilian life. I compared it to being in a submarine that is the military, it goes down with him and in 20 years it comes back up and kicks the man ashore. But he doesn’t know anyone there, he only knows people in the army, and the first problem is getting a job, because when you’re around fifty, it’s not easy to get a job these days.
This is the most important place where veterans should be helped, which is what our association does.
And from your point of view, is the state doing enough in this direction?
The state does it too, but I would say awkwardly. When the soldier is in training and perhaps doesn’t have a high school diploma, his commander should help him to do so, if he has what it takes to study.
We should return the soldiers that the civilian loaned to the army with advantage. Not that you get a young guy and return him worn and old. Let’s give those people an education because there is definitely time for that. And even if the boys aren’t study types, let them take their bus driver’s license or welding exams. Let them be experts, who will then apply in civilian life as well.
So who do you think could be more involved in this?
In my opinion, this is not a task only for the army, it should take care of its own. But we have, for example, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and some interdepartmental commission could function here, which would come up with projects so that the soldiers in the army could grow and learn. And to motivate their commanders to do so.
In closing, tell me what today means to you?
I personally don’t experience it, but I like that someone else does. I love that it’s already being talked about and that you see poppies everywhere now. That wasn’t here at all years ago, and now it makes me happy.
Day of the war veterans
The tradition originated in Western Europe. It refers to the signing of the armistice between the countries of the Entente and Germany in 1918 – the fighting of World War I ended on the Western Front. In the Czech Republic, November 11 has been a significant day since 2004.