09/09/2022 | Press release | Archived content
DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti - Although the early-morning sun was still low in the sky, temperatures were already hovering near 100 degrees as a small group of Kentucky National Guard signal leaders made their way in utility vehicles across the rugged, barren terrain of sunbaked Djibouti, a small country in East Africa.
This drive was just a small part of the journey for the Kentucky Guard Soldiers who traveled more than 15,000 miles for this mission Aug. 11-19 to meet with Djiboutian military signal counterparts and continue building Kentucky's relationship with the nation as part of the State Partnership Program.
But it was, perhaps, in this moment, during the hour-long ride from Camp Lemonnier to a Djiboutian military facility, that the Kentucky Soldiers realized the importance of the mission. The Soldiers watched as children emerged from tents and makeshift lean-to structures in villages along the route, grinning at the sight of the familiar U.S. military uniforms and stretching their arms high to wave - their faces brightening as the Kentucky Soldiers waved back.
"It didn't used to be this way," said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Fox, of the 6th Battalion, 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), who is stationed at Camp Lemonnier, a base that hosts the only enduring U.S. military presence in Africa. "When I first arrived, the children would throw rocks at us, but we've come a long way in building relationships and establishing partnerships since then. They know we are here to help, and they can trust us and can count on the U.S. military."
Fox and the SFAB team serve as liaisons to Djiboutian Armed Forces. They have put a great deal of effort into bringing in military expertise and connecting with the Djiboutian service members and residents of the villages outside the fortified walls of Camp Lemonnier.
He said Kentucky's partnership with Djibouti has been instrumental in helping his team build that trust.
Djibouti is strategically located in the Horn of Africa at the mouth of the Red Sea. A lot of the world's trade and natural resources flow through the area, making Djibouti a key U.S. partner in security, regional stability, and humanitarian efforts across the region.
Since the forming of the state partnership in 2015, the Kentucky Guard has sent engineers, infantry Soldiers, and high-ranking leaders, among others, to exchange ideas, knowledge and best practices with Djiboutian Armed Forces. The Kentucky Guard has also hosted Djiboutian Armed Forces' leaders in the commonwealth.
For this mission, Kentucky National Guard Soldiers were handpicked based on their signal expertise ranging from spectrum management to various communication systems and antennas. The team of three signal Soldiers was led by Maj. Stephen Young, the J6 plans/policy officer for the Kentucky National Guard's Directorate of Information Management.
The Kentucky Soldiers spent three days with signal service members assigned to Bataillon d'Intervention Rapide (BIR), an advanced infantry battalion whose primary mission is to train and serve as a quick reaction force to accomplish missions directed by its higher command in the Armed Forces of Djibouti.
The Kentucky team was housed at Camp Lemonnier, about an hour away from the BIR compound, which is tucked deep in the desert near the Somalian border. The rutted, dirt route cuts through rough terrain where volcanic rock overtakes what little greenery manages to survive in the scorching heat.
On what was to be the first day of their visit, a pounding, overnight rain flooded portions of Djibouti City and the route to BIR, forcing the Kentucky Soldiers to stop midway and return to Camp Lemonnier. When the Kentucky team reached BIR the next day, electricity was out at the compound and a critical laptop computer needed for radio programming could not be accessed. In addition, the Djiboutian military members primarily spoke French and Somali, and the Kentucky Soldiers had only one interpreter.
However, the partner nations were able to overcome the obstacles. What began as a planned information-sharing meeting quickly evolved into a hands-on workshop as BIR requested assistance from the Kentuckians with programming tactical radios and configuring new computer monitors. The Kentucky Soldiers coordinated assignments and went to work, putting in extra hours and returning the next day to meet the BIR's needs.
"That's what we're here to do - to learn and help make each other better," said Sgt. Corey Davis, an information and technology specialist assigned to Kentucky National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters, wireless communications.
Davis and Kentucky Guard Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Reno, a satellite communications noncommissioned officer assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 138 Field Artillery Brigade, spent hours hovering over a laptop and two radios as they worked with a small group of Djiboutian signal service members to program and validate the tactical communications to be used by BIR. They brought and installed software that will enable the Djiboutian Armed Forces to use faster capabilities on their radios.
When the radios chirped to life, Davis exchanged a fist bump with BIR Cpl. Mahad Adaweh, who worked with Davis to program the equipment - sometimes speaking to each other through an interpreter, other times managing with exaggerated hand gestures.
"We have learned so much from the Americans: how to program the radio manually, as well as from a computer, how to install an antenna and much more," Adaweh said through an interpreter. "We are blessed with having them here because we wouldn't have mastered these things without that support. This will make us better."
Davis created a quick reference sheet he left with Adaweh for future programming needs and computer-based training designed for the Djiboutians' radio.
Adaweh and his signal counterparts were so pleased with the computer-based training program they summoned their commander so he could see it.
"Woooo, nice," said Capt. Elmi Moussa Ahmed, the commander of the BIR signal section, speaking in English. Ahmed said the software will allow his service members to practice without taking radios out of tactical use or wearing out the equipment.
BIR Master Sgt. Houssein Omar asked if the Kentucky group would be returning the next day. When the team said they would not, Omar asked, "then, when?"
"The Kentucky team rolled up their sleeves and got after it, with the help of BIR," Young said. There's a sense of pride and accomplishment on both sides of this mission. I could not be more proud of our Kentucky troops and the BIR."
With an unplanned last-minute visit, the Kentucky team made a surprise stop at the BIR compound before departing the country. As the team approached the communications section, more than a dozen BIR service members huddled around a wooden table with a laptop and a radio, practicing skills discussed with the Kentucky Soldiers the day before. The Djiboutians were so engaged, they didn't notice the Kentucky signal team.
"It was exciting to see, knowing that they are eager to learn and better their communication skills and that we were able to help with that," Reno said. "These skills are a matter of surviving and keeping the region safe."
While the Kentucky Soldiers worked alongside BIR signal service members, Young, the officer in charge of the Kentucky mission, and Ahmed sat just outside the one-room communications section. They talked about signal leadership, power generation, network management, and combat radio tactics, techniques and procedures.
Ahmed said he was grateful for the continuing support from Kentucky and the U.S. military.
"The U.S. military has been very helpful," he said. "If I need support, I just have to ask. I would like to thank you all (the Kentucky signal team) for your cooperation and your assistance. I am hoping we will have you again."
Kentucky Guard communication experts have also recently visited and shared knowledge and best practices with armed forces in Mexico and Belize.
"These missions are about being proactive in supporting our partners by reaching out to show our expertise and to build rapport and confidence," Young said.
He said armed forces members from other countries often appear somewhat closed and standoffish at the beginning of such engagements. But by the end, they are opening up and asking questions. Perhaps more importantly, he said, a connection is made and the countries continue to reach out with questions or to share knowledge long after the meeting.
The Department of Defense National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program has been building relationships for 29 years and now includes 85 partnerships with 93 nations around the globe.