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Building projects part of race to win over the Horn of Africa

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Collings paints a window sill at the school dormitory.

JOSEPH GIORDONO / S&S

U.S.-led task force working in Djiboutian border village

By JOSEPH GIORDONO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 26, 2006

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series about the U.S.-led mission in the Horn of Africa. Part I appeared on June 25.

DIKHIL, Djibouti — A few miles from the Ethiopian border, a team of Navy Seabees is putting the final touches on a white metal building that will eventually house some 100 school kids from area villages.

The project is one of dozens being undertaken by a U.S.-led military task force in the Horn of Africa, designed to win what American officials openly say is a competition to influence a region prone to lawlessness and support for fundamentalists and terrorists.

“My name could have easily been on a list to go to Iraq, fighting a different kind of war. It’s remarkable what we’re doing here,” Petty Officer 1st Class James Penney, the Seabee team leader and a 31-year-old from Bushkill, Pa., said. In fact, most of the members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7 now working various projects throughout the Horn of Africa have served in Iraq.

“Ten or 15 years from now, hopefully my little son or daughter won’t have to be out here fighting a war,” Penney says, summing up the mission.

The dormitory, when finished, will encompass about 4,500 square feet and be divided into sections for boys, girls, and live-in staff. The Seabees will offer a one-year guarantee on work and upkeep; after that, it’s up to the Djiboutian Ministry of Education to keep the building up to speed.

But some local villagers aren’t giving much credit to the American project. Standing amid a group of men at a filling station near the dormitory project, one man complains that American officials never followed through on a promise for compensation after his relative was killed in an accident.

Another man says the dormitory will be no good to people from Dikhil, as it will mainly be used by children from other communities. What he wanted was a solar power station.

The construction site itself is roped off with barbed wire and small guardpost manned by members of the 1st Infantry Division from Kansas. While local workers are sometimes brought in as day labor, and the guards sometimes play with the local kids as they walk past the compound, there is a definite separation between the project and the community, in part for security.

“We don’t see a threat locally, from this community,” Penney said. “Anybody coming here to hurt us would be from somewhere else in Africa.”

The security situation here is much different from that in Iraq, where the unit served last year.

“There wasn’t enough security to do this kind of work in Iraq,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Collings, 24, of Kinsman, Ohio, as he painted a window sill in the dormitory. “I’ve been to Iraq, Sri Lanka, helped out after the hurricanes in the States, but this is probably the most meaningful thing I’ve done.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Josener Jeanlouis is the Seabees’ de facto translator. Born in Haiti, Jeanlouis speaks fluent French, which is one of the major languages in Djibouti.

“But most people here speak five or six languages — English, French, Somali, and some local dialects,” he said. “Some of them speak all six languages in the same sentence. So it can be tough.”

But communicating what the project means, and building a good reputations for Americans in this part of the world is what the mission is all about.

“It’s kind of like a race,” said Sgt. Keith Miller, of the security squad. “It’s our good faith versus the terrorists’ good faith.”


A pair of local women walk past the U.S.-built school dormitory project in Dikhil, Djibouti, near the Ethiopian border.
JOSEPH GIORDONO / S&S