Reporter's notebook: Learning to 'roll with the punches' in Africa
June 11, 2005
NIAMEY, Niger — One truck needed a pop-the-clutch push start. The forklifts at the African airports were too wimpy to lift the pallets. Another truck, laden with ammo and other heavy things, broke down on its way out the airport gate.
Flintlock 05, in which some 1,000 U.S. troops have deployed to northern Africa to train African troops and build relationships, got off to a slow start this week for Team Niger.
Moving everything needed to live and work for one month from Germany to rural northern Africa, with limited support, is a mammoth job. The plans on paper often don’t match the reality on the ground. After a lot of sweat, all of the chow, gear and weaponry finally made it to its destination late Wednesday night.
“It happens a lot,” said Spc. Ruben Gomez of Beachwood, N.J., a combat medic with the 418th Civil Affairs Battalion. “But people don’t like to look at the overall picture. They live for the moment, but it doesn’t work that way. If our mission gets [delayed], we have to rely on ourselves.”
The team began by playing wait-and-see with military air. A U.S. Air Force C-5 was eventually procured to lift the soldiers Tuesday from Stuttgart to Niamey, the Nigerien capital.
During a stopover Tuesday night at a remote Mali airstrip, the plane’s back hatch broke, causing a four-hour delay. As they waited, a sandstorm forced the soldiers to retreat from the tarmac into the plane. The air conditioning was turned off in the passenger section, so the cramped area soon took on a locker-room aroma.
But the hatch got fixed and the journey continued.
“Considering the plane broke, they [the Air Force] did a good job getting us here,” said Spc. Travis Stafford of Lee Summit, Mo., and the 418th. “You’ve got to give them credit.”
Upon arrival in Niamey at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, it was discovered that the airport’s forklifts couldn’t handle the heavy cargo. So American and Nigerien soldiers broke down 13 pallets by hand and loaded everything onto the awaiting trucks. They finished at 6:30 a.m. as the sun was coming up, nearly 20 hours after they’d left Stuttgart.
After a busy day with minimal sleep, the soldiers awoke in the wee hours Thursday to convoy to a base in the remote sub-Sahara. From there, the predicted 10- to 12-hour convoy to transport the Special Forces, civil affairs and medical soldiers and their cargo took 15 hours, thanks in part to two breakdowns by a Nigerien police motorcycle used as an escort.
“You’ve just got to roll with the punches,” Gomez said.
More than men in uniforms with guns
Garbage in the streets? Not the best way for a city to put on its best face. Niamey, which in December hosts a big soccer tournament for French-speaking African nations, might have a garbage problem or might not. A team from the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, was going to find out.
“We’re going to feel out what we can do as members of the U.S. Army to help these guys out,” said Capt. Patrick Davis, the team leader. “Do they have garbage trucks? Landfills? We’ve seen Dumpsters, but we’ve yet to see garbage trucks. We don’t know what their process is. They might already have a plan.”
After the rest of Team Niger left for its mission in another part of the country, Davis’ team stayed behind in Niamey to help in the capital. He sounded gratified to do the job.
“The civil affairs business is always a feel-good sort of mission,” Davis said. “Every once in a while we put a smile on somebody’s face, and it shows that the U.S. government and military is not just a bunch of guys in uniforms with guns.”
About 95 percent of Niger’s 11.3 million people are Muslim, according to the U.S. State Department. But they are welcoming of non-Muslims, according to Air Force Master Sgt. Roy Watson, the operations coordinator for the Defense Department attache’s office in Niamey.
“Aid workers feel at home; they are taken in by the villages,” Watson said. “They don’t look down on you if you are not [Muslim]. I’ve had Nigeriens here wish me a Merry Christmas. I feel safer here than I would in New York City.”