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U.S. Army Africa Mission Success in Turbulent Ivory Coast

By Rich Bartell
U.S. Army Africa

May 10, 2011 — A quick response by U.S. Army Africa to a request from U.S. Ambassador to the Ivory Coast, Phillip Carter III, evolved into an evacuation mission April 3, 2011.

Conflicting factions in and around the city of Abidjan had created dangerous conditions for civilian State Department employees, resulting in their relocation to safe havens. Within 36 hours of receiving the mission, a six-man USARAF team was on its way to Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

The team was led by Lieutenant Colonel Mike Larsen, USARAF Contingency Command Post Chief, and consisted of Lieutenant Colonel Nicolas Lovelace, Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Drafall, and U.S. Marines Staff Sergeant Pete Schumacher and Sergeant John Tillman, and Paul Levine, a Department of the Army civilian.

"Our team accomplished the mission very rapidly. We received our orders, packed, performed a quick SRP (Soldier Readiness Processing) and flew within a day," Larsen said.

Traveling to Abidjan, in a C-130J, the team integrated with a joint operations command at Licorne, a French military base under the command of Brigadier General Jean-Pierre Palasset.

The political landscape in the Ivory Coast had been unstable since December, in the wake of a national presidential election, losing incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to recognize the winner, Alassane Ouattara.

According to Larsen, the streets of Abidjan were in turmoil when the USARAF team arrived. Roadblocks and factional fighting added to the danger and confusion of the situation. The USARAF team was unable to reach the U.S. Embassy through normal ground routes. At Licorne, they set up operations and communications links to home base in Vicenza, Italy.

"Things continued to fester and become more unstable in the Ivory Coast," Larsen said. "Tensions from a previous civil war and cultural differences added to the general instability of the life in the Ivory Coast since the election.

"When we arrived in Abidjan a lot was occurring and the two factions were on the verge a major engagement. Lines of communication were cut-off. It was difficult to tell who the good guys were at many of the roadblocks that were set up. It was impossible to make it to the embassy from the ground, and several U.S. diplomats were in need of a safe haven," Larsen said.

The French forces quickly established assembly areas where civilians were picked up and taken to the airport near the French base.

Larsen said Abidjan was rife with a variety of military activity and para-military personnel. In addition to the two combative Ivorian factions and various militia units, there was a large U.N. presence and French forces at Licorne Base. He explained the assistance provided by French troops and their leadership enabled the USARAF team to set up and begin their mission of finding and relocating more than 70 civilians from Abidjan.

"We would have been completely inefficient without the French military. It was refreshing and enlightening to work with the French Army. They were completely transparent and their operation was impressively efficient," Larsen said.

"At assembly areas the French were balanced and professional. It was balance between lethal action, political pressure and force protection. At roadblocks French forces were careful to not to inject themselves into the confusion. Not one of the displaced embassy civilians were injured and it was amazing that for the amount of violence that surrounded them, only one French soldier was wounded by small-arms fire," he said.

"It was clear French forces followed the UN's mandate to protect the civilian population from the warring factions and additionally recognizing the legitimacy of president Ouattara," Larsen said.

In a letter to Larsen, Drafall was credited by Ambassador Carter for his work during the mission.

"I want you to know how critical Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charles Drafall was to our operations in Abidjan, and how much I appreciated his work in support of the Embassy during an incredibly difficult and dangerous time in Cote d'Ivoire," Carter said.

"During this time, I received calls from Ambassador Yates, Secretary Clinton, and President Obama, each of whom thanked the team here for loyal and steadfast duty during the crisis. This team includes the chief. His work with U.S. Africa Command and subordinate units and the country team here was critical to the success of the embassy," Carter said.

For Lovelace, who is with USARAF's International Military Affairs Division, Security Cooperation Directorate, the success of the mission was a result of prior training and coordination with the French.

"In Paris, Lieutenant Colonel Larsen and I engaged the French joint staff during initial joint operations planning in December," he said. Later, Lovelace participated in Lion Torch, a deployment to the Ivory Coast where he established critical relationships with key members of the French Joint Task Force at Licorne.

Lovelace echoed Larsen's assessment of the team's communications crew.

"Our two JSCE Marine NCOs are expert communicators. They knew the environment and exactly what it took to rapidly establish communications between our team at the French base, our headquarters in Vicenza and the embassy," Lovelace said.

For JSCE communications NCO Schumacher, the Ivory Coast mission was all about teamwork.

"The collaboration between USARAF and JCSE members of the team was top-notch. Our mission went nearly flawlessly, our travel in and out of the country went smoothly," Schumacher said.

"While on the ground in Abidjan, our equipment came up quickly and supported the team. Our French hosts were extremely accommodating and efficient in carrying out all operations with less technology and older equipment," he said.

Larsen, who will soon take the helm of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rdAirborne Brigade Combat Team, summed up the mission.

"This was a team effort and this experience with USARAF had made me a better officer. It's given me a better appreciation and understanding of how embassies work and component commands work. It's been a professionally rewarding experience," Larsen said.

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