DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti — Although the early-morning sun was still low in the sky, temperatures were already hovering near 100 degrees, as a small group of Kentucky National Guard signal leaders made their way in utility vehicles across the rugged, barren terrain of sunbaked Djibouti, a small country in East Africa.
This drive was just a small part of the journey for the Kentucky Guard Soldiers who traveled more than 15,000 miles for this mission, August 11-19, to meet with Djiboutian military signal counterparts and to continue building Kentucky’s relationship with the nation as part of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program.
But it was, perhaps, in this moment, during the hour-long ride from Camp Lemonnier to a Djiboutian military facility, that the impact and the importance of the mission was felt by the Kentucky Soldiers. From their windows, the Soldiers watched as small children emerged from tents and make-shift lean-to structures in villages along the route, grinning at the sight of the familiar U.S. military uniforms and stretching their arms high to waive — their faces brightening as the Kentucky Soldiers waived back.
“It didn’t use to be this way,” said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Fox, of the 6th Battalion, 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), who is stationed at Camp Lemonnier, a base that hosts the only enduring U.S. military presence in Africa. “When I first arrived, the children would throw rocks at us, but we’ve come a long way in building relationships and establishing partnerships since then. They know we are here to help, and they can trust us and can count on the U.S. military.”
Fox and the SFAB team serve as liaisons to Djiboutian Armed Forces and have put a great deal of effort into bringing in needed military expertise, as well as personally connecting with the Djiboutian service members and residents of the villages outside the fortified walls of Camp Lemonnier.
He said Kentucky’s partnership with Djibouti has been instrumental in helping his team build that trust.
Djibouti is particularly important because of its strategic location in the Horn of Africa at the mouth of the Red Sea. A significant amount of the world’s trade and natural resources flow through the area, making Djibouti a key U.S. partner to security, regional stability, and humanitarian efforts across the region.
Since the forming of the state partnership in 2015, the Kentucky Guard has sent engineers, infantry Soldiers, and high-ranking leaders, among others, to exchange ideas, knowledge, and best practices with Djiboutian Armed Forces. The Kentucky Guard has also hosted Djiboutian Armed Forces’ leaders in the Commonwealth.
For this mission, Kentucky National Guard Soldiers were handpicked based on their signal expertise ranging from spectrum management to various communication systems and antennas. The team of three signal Soldiers was led by Maj. Stephen Young, the J6 plans/policy officer for the Kentucky National Guard’s Directorate of Information Management.
During their visit, the Kentucky Soldiers spent three days with signal service members assigned to Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR), an advanced infantry battalion whose primary mission is to train and serve as a quick reaction force to accomplish missions directed by its higher command in the Armed Forces of Djibouti.
But the visit was not without its challenges for the Kentucky Soldiers.
The Kentucky team was housed at Camp Lemonnier, about an hour away from the BIR compound, which is tucked deep in the Djiboutian desert, near the Somalian border. The dirt, rutted route cuts through rough terrain where volcanic rock overtakes what little greenery that manages to survive in the scorching heat.
On what was to be the first day of their visit, a pounding, overnight rain flooded portions of Djibouti City and the route to BIR, forcing the Kentucky Soldiers to stop midway and return to Camp Lemonnier. When the Kentucky team was able to reach BIR the next day, electricity was out at the compound and, initially, a critical laptop computer needed for radio programming could not be accessed. In addition, the language barrier was also a factor, as the Djiboutian military members primarily spoke French and Somali, and the Kentucky Soldiers had only one interpreter to use among them.
However, both partner nations were able to overcome all obstacles, and what began as a planned information-sharing meeting quickly evolved into a hands-on workshop as BIR requested assistance from the Kentuckians with programming tactical radios and configuring new computer monitors. Without hesitation, the Kentucky Soldiers coordinated assignments and went to work, putting in extra hours and returning the following day to ensure the BIR’s needs were met.
“That’s what we’re here to do — to learn and help make each other better,” said Sgt. Corey Davis, an information and technology specialist, assigned to Kentucky National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters, wireless communications.
Davis and Kentucky Guard Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Reno, a satellite communications non-commissioned officer, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battery (HHB), 138 Field Artillery Brigade, spent hours hovering over a laptop and two radios as they worked with a small group of Djiboutian signal service members to program and validate the tactical communications to be used by BIR. Part of the process included installing software brought by the Kentucky Guard that will enable the Djiboutian Armed Forces to utilize faster capabilities on their radios.
When the radios chirped to life, Davis exchanged a fist-bump with BIR Cpl. Mahad Adaweh, who worked intently with Davis, as the two programmed the equipment; sometimes speaking to each other through an interpreter, other times managing with exaggerated hand gestures.
Through an interpreter, Adaweh said he was thankful for the help from Kentucky.
“We have learned so much from the Americans: how to program the radio manually, as well as from a computer, how to install an antenna and much more,” Adaweh said. “We are blessed with having them here because we wouldn’t have mastered these things without that support. This will make us better.”
Davis created a quick reference sheet that he left with Adaweh for future programming needs, as well as computer-based training that was designed specifically for the Djiboutians’’ radio.
Adaweh and his signal counterparts were so pleased with the computer-based training program they summoned their commander so he could see it.
“Woooo, nice,” said Capt. Elmi Moussa Ahmed, the commander of the BIR signal section, speaking in English for the benefit of the Kentucky Soldiers. Ahmed said the software will allow his service members to practice without taking radios out of tactical use, or wearing out the equipment.
In this moment, BIR Master Sgt. Houssein Omar asked if the Kentucky group would be returning the following day. When the team said they would not be, Omar asked, “then, when,” adding that Kentucky needed to come back to BIR.
At the end of this second day, the Kentucky Soldiers left BIR feeling a sense of accomplishment. Bonds were formed and information was shared that will likely make communications more reliable and tactically secure for the BIR, the Kentucky Soldiers said.
“The Kentucky team rolled up their sleeves and got after it, with the help of BIR,” Young said. There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment on both sides of this mission. I could not be more proud of our Kentucky troops and the BIR.”
With an unplanned last-minute visit, the Kentucky team was able to make one last surprise stop at the BIR compound before their departure from the country. As the team approached the communications section, more than a dozen BIR services member sat huddled around a wooden table with a laptop and a radio, practicing skills discussed with the Kentucky Soldiers the day before. The Djiboutians were so engaged, they didn’t notice the Kentucky signal team.
“It was exciting to see, knowing that they are eager to learn and better their communication skills, and that we were able to help with that,” Reno said. “These skills are a matter of surviving and keeping the region safe.”
While the Kentucky Soldiers spent their time working alongside BIR signal service members, Young, the officer in charge of the Kentucky mission, met with Ahmed, the commander of the signal section within BIR. The two sat just outside the one-room communications section, under a hand-painted sign with the words: Station Radio BIR. With the assistance of an interpreter, the two officers talked big-picture signal leadership, power generation and network management, as well as combat radio tactics, techniques and procedures.
Ahmed said he was grateful for the continuing support from Kentucky and the U.S. military.
“The U.S. military has been very helpful,” he said. “If I need support, I just have to ask. I would like to thank you all (the Kentucky Signal team) for your cooperation and your assistance. I am hoping we will have you again.”
Along with Djibouti, Young said, Kentucky Guard communication experts have also recently visited and shared knowledge and best practices with armed forces in Mexico and Belize.
“These missions are about being proactive in supporting our partners by reaching out to show our expertise and to build rapport and confidence,” Young said.
He said during the engagements, it is common for armed forces members from other countries to appear somewhat closed and standoffish in the beginning. By the end of the engagement, Young said, they are opening up and asking questions. Perhaps more importantly, he said, is a connection is made and the countries continue to reach out with questions or to share knowledge long after the meeting.
That on-going contact is particularly important regarding BIR, said SFAB Capt. Will Richardson, as the SFAB’s support for BIR from Camp Lemonnier is set to end in year 2023. The SFAB was instrumental in coordinating and assisting with Kentucky’s visit to BIR.
“Kentucky state partnership program teams have brought a lot of experience,” Richardson said. “We are hoping that Kentucky, through the partnership program, will continue with yearly engagements and continue providing support for years to come.”
The National Guard’s State Partnership Program is a Department of Defense security cooperation program that also serves as a mechanism for training National Guard personnel. The program has been building relationships for more than 25 years and now includes 85 partnerships with 93 nations around the globe.