My first trip with SoA came just a few short weeks after joining the team and began with a flight to Mogadishu, Somalia. I was excited to arrive in a region that, up until recently, I never thought I would have the opportunity to visit. The trip gave me the chance to meet our Special Operations partners and support the multinational effort to stop al-Shabaab and stabilize the region.
After landing and navigating the chaos of the airport, I was met by one of our partners waiting in an armored land cruiser. Following only a few minutes of driving and without leaving the walled and heavily guarded international airport complex, we arrived at the US compound. It was here that I was introduced to life in Mogadishu as it exists for our deployed service members. The camp is a swirling bowl of dust and rock with a constant wind blowing in from the adjacent Indian Ocean. Here, countless repurposed shipping containers serve as living quarters, offices, and storage for precious supplies within camps separated by concrete and earthen walls. The austere and fortified US camp bustled with soldiers thousands of miles and what seemed like a world away from their homes and loved ones. Despite the separation, each remained motivated and passionate about their mission and understood the importance of the work at hand.
This passion led to a project in support of a US Special Operations team’s efforts to engage local leaders and communities on the outskirts of the city. Within hours of landing, the team sergeant had identified the needs to me, allowing us to purchase the supplies necessary to address these concerns the following day. This quick thinking and desire to improve upon the status quo led to a rapid SoA response. Although the project was relatively inexpensive, it made an incredible difference to our US partners and their Somali counterparts.
After a productive couple of days in Mogadishu, I traveled to one of several joint US-Somali outposts. These remote outstations are important pieces in the strategy to extend governance and security to areas far beyond the capital. They provide an armed Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) presence, act as training bases where US advisors build the capacity of the Somali security forces, deter al-Shabaab activities, and provide an alternative to rule by violent extremists.
The first thing I noticed upon landing was not the heat, dust, or pestering mosquitos, but rather the beauty of the night sky. Standing on the flight line in remote Somalia, far from the nearest city and in zero-light conditions for security reasons, the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye – I had never seen so many stars. However, the peace and grandeur above belied the truth of the situation on the ground and my awe quickly faded as I shouldered my bulging duffel and was blasted by exhaust from our quickly departing aircraft.
Conditions at the outstation made Mogadishu seem luxurious. Despite the lack of comforts and amenities, the soldiers and marines at this remote outpost had the same upbeat attitude and professionalism as their colleagues in Mogadishu; in fact, they seemed to be motivated by the harsh conditions themselves. During this visit, I was able to put faces to the names of the civil affairs team I had been remotely supporting through the provision of medical equipment to their partner force. Prior to receiving equipment from SoA, the Somali partner force was struggling to move injured soldiers from where they were wounded to hospitals for better care. That reality was taking its toll on the men and the mission. With stretchers provided by SoA, the partners have a new capability that will not only save lives but will increase the confidence and effectiveness of our Somali partner as they take the fight to al-Shabaab.
From Somalia, I traveled to Kenya to meet with additional US military teams and US embassy personnel working on the same problem from the other side of the Kenya Somalia border. During the trip, I also met with Kenyan forces working hard to secure their borders, stop the wildlife poaching and trafficking, and combat al-Shabaab. Given the remoteness of the areas they patrol and their understaffed and under resourced units, this is a monumental task. However, these dedicated Kenyans gladly shoulder the burden of defending their country, with past al-Shabaab atrocities as a reminder that if nothing is done, evil will prevail.
Even though I was gone for over two weeks, the time flew by and much was accomplished. The chance to visit these distant places and look our US military and diplomatic partners in the eye while thanking them for everything they do was extraordinary. Even more rewarding was the opportunity to offer them a helping hand in addressing local needs through my work with Spirit of America. That in itself is, to me, a dream come true.