Seabees build school, relationships in Congo
October 7, 2007
Unlike his civil affairs soldier peers in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ensign Albert Gembara is melding military services and community relations before the bombs hit.
Gembara, a 26-year-old Navy reservist on active duty, is part of the first wave of brand-new Navy maritime civil affairs teams. Their goal is to make a difference in the community long before what the military calls “Phase IV or Phase V” — the rebuilding missions that follow combat operations that raze portions of a war- torn nation.
They’re seeking to operate in what’s dubbed “Phase Zero.”
Instead of focusing on rebuilding cities that have been turned to rubble, the Navy’s maritime civil affairs members can focus on projects such as “job incubation,” Gembara said. By that he means getting countries’ economic systems flourishing and job markets thriving — thus keeping military-age men out of unemployment lines or rebelling.
Earlier this year, the Navy’s Expeditionary Combat Command in Virginia stood up two units whose sole focus is civil affairs missions. Tangible evidence of their work includes a recent mission in Congo in which Gembara and a team of 12 Seabees from Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily helped rehabilitate a 1,500-student high school and visited orphanages.
The Seabees re-patched and repainted Moungali High School in the nation’s capital of Brazzaville, a project selected by the U.S. ambassador to Congo, the Congolese Ministry of Defense and the International Partnership for Human Development aid agency.
Missions such as these — in which sailors rebuild schools when the nation is at war — are not a waste of the Navy’s resources or manpower, said Rear Adm. Michael Groothousen, who spent four days last week in Congo.
Such projects, he said in a Friday interview, go a long way to helping stabilize a region.
“Education is important to us, yes, but it’s also important to them,” Groothousen said. Better education means a literate populace, which means an educated and viable work force.
“It means growth in the economy, better jobs. It means stability in the region,” he said.
“It’s selfish on our part, but we’d love to have stability on the African continent. We’d like to see peace and economic stability in that region. If that area is stable, it diminishes the possibility for conflict, and that’s why we do these things.”
At first, working relations were sticky between the Navy construction crew and the Congolese — with the latter leery of approaching the Seabees, much less lending a hand, Lt. Amy Fleming, the officer-in-charge of the Congo team, said in a phone interview from Sigonella.
“The Congolese military is viewed differently by the people than we view the U.S. military. They’re viewed as aggressive … and to them, a uniform was a uniform,” she said.
Gembara, who as a civilian is director of The Gembara Group Inc., an economic development company working to revive Midwest job markets, started communications with the locals. Soon, teachers, parents and students were helping out. Even Congolese soldiers, present to provide security for the Seabees, became involved in the repair work.
“They needed ownership of the project,” he said, likening it to renting versus owning a home. You own it, you tend to take better care of it, he said.
That spirit was key to making the project work.
“Though the Moungali teachers and local Congo community were hesitant … initially,” said Navy Capt. Frank Aucremanne, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Europe/Southwest Asia.
“The school teachers clearly stepped in and provided leadership and motivation as they began regularly showing up and moving out of their comfort zones to directly help the project succeed.”