For U.S. Soldiers Based In Djibouti, Africa Is A ‘Leadership Lab’

By Dana Sanchez Published: October 5, 2016, 9:50 pm
U.S. soldiers based in DjiboutiMarines during an embassy reinforcement exercise near Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti in 2013. Photo: TSgt Chad Thompson, USAF/mca-marines.org

For ambitious young U.S. soldiers seeking leadership exposure beyond their level, a deployment in Africa is hard to beat.

“The deployment gave me and my soldiers the opportunity to operate at a much higher level than our peers who didn’t deploy,” said First Lt. Nick Marfongelli in a Defense News report.

After six months in Africa, Marfongelli said “we were the best unit we’ve ever been. We had time to sharpen the axe, and we were definitely prepared.”

Based at Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, Marfongelli and his soldiers responded, if called, to crises or threats in 13 African countries.

Djibouti plays host to the largest permanent U.S. military base in Africa. Camp Lemonnier is home to more than 4,000 personnel, mostly part of a combined joint task force in the Horn of Africa, BBC reported.

Djibouti’s status as a stable country in an otherwise volatile region is one of its greatest assets. That stability is worth millions of dollars in rent. Djibouti enjoys a lucrative role as a landlord.

The U.S. pays $63 million a year to rent Camp Lemonnier. China is building a base there too, and will be paying $100 million for theirs, according to BBC.

China wants to expand its influence in Africa. About eight miles from Camp Lemonnier is a 90-acre plot of land, recently acquired by China. China plans to have its first overseas military base fully built and operational there within a year, “arguably a major historic step marking its evolution as a rising world power,” according to Frontera News.

In addition to Djibouti, there are at least seven other U.S. drone bases in Africa, including Entebbe Airport in Uganda; Seychelles; Arba Minch, Ethiopia; Lamu, Kenya; Nzara, South Sudan; Niamey base, Niger; as well a US military hub in Burkina Faso, according to Frontera News.

On Sept. 30, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that the U.S. would invest up to $100 million in a new military air base capable of deploying drones in Agadez, Niger.

Camp Lemonnier became the first U.S. installation in Africa shortly after the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks, NCO Journal reported.

Since its first year, it has doubled its missions there.

“In fiscal year 2015, we conducted 75 joint operations, 12 major joint exercises, and 400 security cooperation activities (in Africa)”  said Gen. David Rodriguez, then U.S. Defense Department chief of AFRICOM, in a 2016 briefing, according to Frontera News:

The growth … is in response to the spread of Islamist extremism across the continent with the command now conducting regular strikes on Islamic State, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Africa’s role as a convenient base for the U.S. fight against terror groups outside the subcontinent is also growing for missions targeting Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Marfongelli, 24, says he never thought he’d get experience so early in his career that he got in Africa.

“It allowed me to get exposure to things that were a lot higher than my level,” he told Defense News. “I got a better understanding of the things that were going on above me, and the exposure and the development for me, I can’t put a price on it. I was definitely a better platoon leader having done it.”

That’s exactly what U.S. Army Africa leaders are pushing as they dedicate more forces to exercises and engagements on the African continent, according to Defense News:

On any given day, about 2,000 U.S. soldiers are deployed to Africa, conducting theater security cooperation activities, training with African partners and participating in exercises, said Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington, commander of U.S. Army Africa.

Africa is “just a splendid place” to give soldiers valuable leadership experience, Harrington has said.

Others have called Africa a “leadership lab.”

This was especially true for the soldiers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, who spent the last year regionally aligned to Africa.

In addition to sending soldiers from 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry to Djibouti, the brigade also sent soldiers from a sister battalion to Gabon for jungle warfare training and to participate in Central Accord 2016, the largest exercise U.S. Army has conducted on the African continent.

“Other than my squad leaders, this was the first time most of my soldiers were out of the country, much less deployed with the Army,” said 2nd Lt. Tyler Thomas, a platoon leader with B Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment. “It was a great opportunity to grow, see another culture and how another part of the world lives.”

It also expanded his soldiers’ views on international partners, as his soldiers worked with troops from France, Gabon, Chad, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.

Thomas, 23, and his soldiers spent a month in Gabon, and for most of that time, they worked in squads, each paired with a different partner army.

This taught him how to operate in a more decentralized manner, as he moved from one squad to another to make sure the training and partnering were going well, Thomas said.

“Even though we have different equipment, different ways of doing things, even though there’s a language barrier, we can still work together in an international setting to achieve a common mission,” he said.

His soldiers also sharpened their skills as they trained to conduct a live-fire exercise with the Gabonese army, Thomas said.

“Our team leaders and squad leaders were able to get in the trenches with the Gabonese,” he said. “That’s where I think the Army needs to focus, that junior leader level. If our teams are as strong as they can be, then the squads and platoons and companies will be successful, and it builds up from there.”

Marfongelli agreed.

“You can tell the difference between soldiers who’ve deployed and ones who have not in terms of maturity and basic skills,” he said. “Before we deployed, there was a significant line between those who had and those who hadn’t. While deployed, our junior leaders got that broadening experience to work in a joint agency, multinational environment and put them out of their comfort zone.”

 

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