A s 1st Lt. Chris Mercer braked before entering the gates of a primary
school in Djibouti, a local bus driver with a weathered face stopped beside
him and smiled, yelling through the open window, “Osama is coming
to Djibouti. Problem for you, yes?”
The young Air Force civil engineer responded politely with a slight matter-of-fact
smile and carefully maneuvered his white sport utility vehicle around the
bus and through the narrow gates of the newly renovated school.
The soft-spoken native of El Dorado, Kan., said he wasn’t sure if
the driver was asking a question or providing a friendly statement of general
warning. He was certain, however, about why he was in the Horn of Africa.
He serves as part of an international military coalition to establish peace
and stability, and thereby prevent the seed of terrorism from being planted
and taking root.
We’re doing some really great things out here,” he said of
the wide range of quality-of-life projects and training undergone over
the past two years by Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa.
About 50 Airmen have joined more than 1,400 servicemembers from a host
of other nations in endeavors such as vaccinating camels, constructing
bridges, digging wells and training African troops in ways to counter the
spread of terrorism across their borders. On average, a project is completed
every three days.
The area of operations is as broad as its goal. CJTF-HOA includes Djibouti,
Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ken-ya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen — equivalent
to almost 70 percent of the continental United States.
One of the main ways of reaching out to such a vast audience is through
renovating schools, where efforts touch the lives of future adults and
leaders. Lieutenant Mercer was joining a small group of civil engineers
and a local contractor during a final inspection of renovation work. Using
local contractors stimulates the local economy and offers unskilled and
eager workers employment in Djibouti where unemployment is more than 50
percent and the average per capita income is $450.
Contracts are established through a collaboration with Army civil affairs
officers who roam about the Horn of Africa establishing contacts with local
nationals. Servicemembers are sometimes treated as suspicious outsiders,
but eventually become welcomed guests, as on this day when Lieutenant Mercer
inspected classrooms renovated with ceiling fans, electric lights, a fresh
coat of paint and a blackboard to replace a thin sheet of painted plywood
that had previously served in its stead. Teachers speaking French attempted
to continue classes during the visit, but an eruption of huge smiles and
friendly waves occurred as their visitors passed outside each classroom.
That’s what makes this job so incredible,” Lieutenant Mercer
said of the warm and enthusiastic response he always receives from students. “You
get a lot of return from the kids. Most of your return is through their
But it could only be described as controlled chaos less than an hour prior
at a different school when Lieutenant Mercer entered through the gate of
the Al-Horiya Primary School. He was there to meet with school officials
to discuss the upcoming renovation project soon to get underway.
As he exited his truck, he was swarmed by young students eager to touch
and speak to the American dressed in a desert camouflaged uniform. Although
their enthusiasm matched that of the school just visited, the classroom
appearance couldn’t have been more drastic. Ceiling fans stood still
above the dark and dirty room.
In about two months — the time usually required for most renovations — the
school will stand in stark contrast to life outside the gate, where endless
trash covers a landscape of dilapidated homes and small shops pieced together
with wood and corrugated steel.
Less visible and more intangible results might not be seen for years to
come, but they could be significant, said Capt. Joshua Close from inside
the communications directorate at Camp Lemonier. The camp is a former French
Foreign Legion outpost and now headquarters for CJTF-HOA.
You may not see the rewards until 20 years down the line, but you know
the seeds are being planted. You just hope the relationship continues to
thrive and grow throughout the years,” said Captain Close, a 26-year-old
from Omaha, Neb., who volunteered for the 120-day deployment from his home
station at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
The captain and the Airmen who work for him are worlds away from New York
City where the fight against terrorism erupted Sept. 11, 2001, but he sees
the Horn of Africa mission as the “front end of the war on terror,” and
he likes the way the war is being waged.
We’re not fighting with beans and bullets, but with school dedications
and hospital renovations,” he said. If they’re successful,
he said, today’s younger generation will grow up thinking of Americans
as allies and become participants in the global war on terrorism.
But the way the war is being waged in the Horn of Africa doesn’t
make it any less real — or dangerous. The Horn of Africa was chosen
for this alternative approach to the war because the region offers freedom
of movement for terrorists at border crossings, ports and by air, as well
as a source of safe havens for terrorists and the business and financial
networks that support them.
The terrorists are working just as hard as we are,” said Staff Sgt.
Robert Henshaw, a CJTF-HOA communications systems administrator deployed
from Ramstein. That’s why he feels a sense of urgency even though
the war on terrorism is often viewed in terms of years or decades.
The quicker we can get to them to show them we’re here to help them,” he
said, the greater the chance of deterring future acts of terrorism. “I
like the goal of the mission. We’re here trying to take the country
back — Africa for Africa, and it’s actually paying off.”
Building bridges — literally
A major player for the coalition is the 823rd Expeditionary RED HORSE Squadron
from Hurlburt Field, Fla. During its six-month stint that ended in January,
most of its 35-member team worked in unfamiliar territory for RED HORSE
engineers — outside the gate.
Used primarily for on-base infrastructure work such as runway repair in
a deployed setting, the civil engineers were not only focused on projects
just outside the gate, but hundreds of miles away. At remote sites such
as Gode, Ethiopia, six engineers replaced 50,000 square feet of rotten
bridge decking that had caused injuries to livestock. They’ve also
been busy in Hurso, Ethiopia, where another team constructed a 1,000-square-foot
We’re building a friendship that hopefully is a generational thing
so they grow up thinking we’re the good guys and they’re [terrorists]
the bad guys,” said Master Sgt. Dave Crocker, the RED HORSE first
sergeant. However, such endeavors are not new to local inhabitants. Terrorists
have undertaken similar projects in the past to influence local natives,
Sergeant Crocker noted, but with a few major differences. RED HORSE sticks
around to finish the job with no other agenda than to stabilize the region
by helping people help themselves.
Converting words into deeds is particularly relevant when dealing with
tribal elders, said Lieutenant Mercer, who has sat in mud huts with thatched
roofs discussing proposed projects with tribal leaders. Their people identify
themselves more with their tribes than the country they live in. “The
tribe is powerful,” he said. “If we make friends with one village,
we can make friends with the entire tribe.”
Finishing the job hasn’t come without challenges for the RED HORSE
crew. Mending the 22-mile Hol-Hol Road that provides a vital link for food
and supplies between Djibouti City and Hol-Hol meant working 12-hour days
in what’s described as the hottest, continually inhabited place on
earth. Temperatures exceed 140 degrees in Djibouti.
However, it’s not necessarily the bigger jobs that bring about the
most significant change. While the previous military civil engineer team
worked at a school renovation project, one of the crew noticed there weren’t
any girls at the school and asked why. Because there were no toilets for
them. A separate toilet was built and now girls attend school alongside
boys, said Capt. Scott Stanford, the RED HORSE detachment officer in charge.
As a result, that particular issue is addressed with every project.
There are no small issues for Lt. Col. Dave Mackenzie when it comes to
providing combat search and rescue for a mission encompassing more than
2 million square miles of the country.
It’s not your traditional CSAR,” said the commander of the
71st Expeditionary Rescue Squadron. The unit flies the HC-130P Combat King
used primarily for aerial refueling helicopters involved in a search and
rescue mission for downed pilots. However, while in Djibouti, his customers
could range from an injured civilian employee for a nongovernmental aid
agency, to a RED HORSE engineer taken hostage by terrorists or Soldiers
in a situation as virulent as the Black Hawk helicopter shoot-down in Somalia.
Such adaptability of the 71st ERS is an example of a new way of doing business.
That also defines the way the war on terrorism is being waged, said Command
Chief Master Sgt. Curtis Brownhill at the conclusion of a visit to Djibouti
on behalf of Central Command.
The Horn of Africa is a preferred model,” said Chief Brownhill, likening
the mission to a sort of reversal to the Marshal Plan of World War II in
which the enemy was dealt a devastating military defeat followed by a military
assisted reconstruction program.
Here at HOA you can almost flip it over. We’re winning the war without
firing a shot.”