CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti — Staff Sgt. Alan Wardell was anticipating a slowgoing deployment when he got the order to go to Africa, one with enough down time to bulk up at the gym and head back to Kansas lean and mean.
“It was going to be the diet and gym deployment,” said Wardell, who serves with the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Riley. “But that’s not how it worked out. Things are unpredictable here.”
Just days after arriving at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, in late December, Wardell and other members of the Army’s new East Africa Response Force, or EARF, were called to action in South Sudan, where ethnic conflict between warring factions came dangerously close to the U.S. embassy in Juba.
About 45 soldiers boarded a C-130 and headed for the hot spot, where they would help with civilian evacuations and embassy security in Juba.
“We’re basically the firemen for AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command). If something arises and they need troops somewhere, we can be there just like that,” said Capt. John Young, who serves as company commander for the response force.
The prime mission for Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa at Camp Lemonnier — U.S. Africa Command’s main operational hub on the continent — remains focused on a 10-nation area that includes Somalia, where U.S.-trained African Union forces have been fighting al-Qaida-aligned insurgents for years now.
“I think the heart of our mission is trying to create militaries that are capable on their own of bringing stability, so you can have peace and security in this region,” said Vice Adm. Alexander Krongard, deputy commander of CJT-HOA. “Frankly, we don’t have a lot of forces to move around on the ground. We’re not into the wholesale training of giant armies.”
EARF is part of AFRICOM’s more muscular posture that emerged after the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Those attacks, which left four dead including U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens, exposed a lack of critical crises response capability on the continent. That prompted the Army to form EARF — a company-size element that is forward stationed at Camp Lemonnier. Together with a Marine Air Ground Task Force in southern Spain, and additional special operations forces assigned to AFRICOM, the command for the first time has assigned units on a short string.
A platoon-size element from the Army unit continues to provide security in Juba, while the rest of the force, drawn from the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, remains on call in Djibouti.
“You never know what’s going to happen, but getting called up on a mission like that really justifies your deployment,” said Wardell, who, like all other EARF soldiers, carries a beeper at all times in the event of a crisis.
The addition of crisis response teams comes at a time when uncertainty abounds across much of Africa with simmering hot spots stretching from South Sudan and the Central African Republic to Mali and Libya.
For Lt. Col. Robert Magee, who commands the 1-18 Infantry Regiment, crisis response is only one part of the mission in Djibouti. While one company of troops is always on call, most of the remaining 700 soldiers provide security at Camp Lemonnier or travel across Africa to conduct training missions with U.S. partners. The unit, which is part of the Army’s regional alignment concept that pairs units with regions of the world, is intended to provide combatant commands with a more reliable source of support. For AFRICOM, that means more forces for more missions.
In 2013, AFRICOM conducted 546 security activities on the continent, ranging from operations and exercises to small training events, a sharp spike from the 172 missions the command inherited when it became fully operational in 2008.
Since arriving in Djibouti in December, Magee’s troops have been key to boosting the Army’s role on the continent, training roughly 2,000 troops from about 25 different countries. Overall, the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which includes the soldiers of 1-18, have trained five battalion-size units and scores of smaller teams across the region, preparing African soldiers for deployments in places such as Somalia and Mali, Magee said.
“As a result of that training, I think they were much better than they would have been on their own,” Magee said.
Sgt. John Lehto, a sniper team leader, said the feedback he’s received from the troops he’s trained, including Burundi soldiers bound for Somalia, has been positive.
“When we were done with our mission, they told us they were not the same men they were before,” said Lehto, who provided marksmanship instruction to Somalia-bound Burundian troops. “All they talked about was how they wanted them (the Somali terror group Al-Shabaab) out of that country.”
Last year, AFRICOM also sent a small team of advisers into Mogadishu to coordinate with AU forces operating in the area. While the advisers are less than 12 troops, the deployment was likely the first time regular troops have been assigned to Somalia since the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle that left 18 U.S. troops dead.
The troops now in Somalia, however, have a noncombat role, military officials said.
“For us to try to enable the African troop contributing country we need to understand a little better what is going on there,” Krongard said. “That small (team) provides us situational awareness and a means to understanding what the thinking is inside Somalia.”
As the mission in Djibouti grows, Krongard says,, an ever-present rapid response team will be key to contending with crises virtually impossible to forecast.
“It’s the sheer unpredictability here,” Krongard said. “A lot of things come out of the blue. You wake up in the morning and prepare for whatever comes during the day and that is just the nature of the job.”