Building a Presence in Djibouti

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti, Dec. 11, 2002 -- In the beginning, there was a wreck.

That was how soldiers serving in this nation in the Horn of Africa described the camp when they arrived in June.

The French built the military camp, located near the international airport. When they left, they turned the facility over to the Djiboutian military. After a few years, the Djiboutians abandoned the place to the elements and scavengers -- human and animal.

People stripped the buildings of anything usable. No wire or pipes were left. The elements caved in the roofs of some of the buildings and pigeons roosted in the remains. People raised goats on the property.

But the demands of the global war on terrorism means Djibouti is a hot spot. Across the Red Sea is Yemen, the family homeland of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The coastal country's neighbors are Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia -- areas where terrorists have attacked and where al Qaeda elements may be hiding.

U.S. and Djiboutian leaders recognized the strategic importance of the area, and Camp Lemonier would have to rise again.

It wasn't easy.

The 87th Corps Support Battalion from Fort Stewart, Ga., was tasked to make the camp livable again. The first soldiers on the ground had to clear the 11-acre camp of animal and human manure. They had to shore up the buildings, and they had to improvise.

The temperature here routinely hits 130 degrees in June. Flies "covered anything moist," said one soldier, and medical force protection became a priority. In addition to taking the normal shots to combat disease, service members in country take anti-malarial drugs.

The soldiers lived in old medium-sized, general purpose Army tents adapted for window air conditioners. The area is perpetually in drought, U.S. embassy officials said. Any movement to clear area raised choking clouds of dust.

But the battalion made quick progress. The soldiers cleared the original site quickly and built an infrastructure. "It's nothing fancy," said Lt. Col. Andy Bowes, battalion commander. "But it is serviceable."

The colonel said the unit had a "hard-charging sergeant major who ram-rodded" the engineering work through. The unit contracted local laborers for earthmoving and some construction.

The camp expanded to handle a larger number of facilities, and the unit helped build new concrete pads, maintenance facilities and living areas.

Camp Lemonier now provides logistical support for Combined/Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. The task force is responsible for the area covering Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti. There are 900 service members on the ground in Camp Lemonier with another 400 "afloat" aboard the command ship USS Mount Whitney.

The morale at the camp is high. "This is the front lines, for now," an Air Force technical sergeant said. "But I'll tell you, being based here gives you an appreciation for life in the United States."

Many service members feel that same way. Army Capt. David Connolly, the public affairs officer, said that even from the start of work in Djibouti, service members reached out to the population around them.

There was no formal humanitarian effort, so the soldiers started one. Connolly said the troops reached into their own pockets and raised $3,000. They used the money to rebuild a school devastated by a storm and then volunteered to paint playground equipment and buildings at a nearby orphanage. Medical personnel took leftover supplies from units transiting the area and passed them to people who needed them.

A schoolgirl in the United States sent 15 soccer balls to the troops in Djibouti. The soldiers delivered them to local schools and then stayed to play with the children.

The 87th is leaving Camp Lemonier soon, and Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., will take over the command.

There is much to be done at the camp. Most troops still live in tents. One airman said the buildings still get pigeons in them. The camp has two gyms -- one in a building, one in a tent. One construction project is to try to renovate a swimming pool the French built during their stay.

Americans also talk about bridging the cultural gap between themselves and the Djiboutians. "Time isn't judged the same way," said an Army staff sergeant. "It's much more laid back here. There's no real rush to get things done. That goes against our grain."

Bowes agreed, saying the only advice he has for his Marine replacement is, "Be patient. It'll happen."

So work will continue and Americans -- at least for the time being -- will continue to be based in this hot spot in the war on terror.