CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti – Kentucky National Guard engineers with the 577th Sapper Company and 123rd Airlift Wing traveled more than 15,000 miles to train with the Djiboutian military demining company as part of the State Partnership Program (SPP) Aug.19–29.
For over 25 years, the National Guard has conducted military-to-military engagements in support of defense security goals under the SPP. Kentucky partners with Djibouti and Ecuador.
"Our goals were to enhance each other's knowledge of a wide variety of explosive threats that Soldiers face on the battlefield, including improvised explosive device (IED), unexploded ordnance (UXO) and landmine hazards," said Army Capt. William M. Fegenbush, commander of the 577th Sapper Company and officer in charge of the expedition.
"This equal sharing of knowledge and experience holds great potential for the increased effectiveness and safety of both United States' forces and those of the Republic of Djibouti," he said.
Training relationships like these are crucial to the survival of members of the Djibouti Demining Company, which lost four soldiers during routine route clearance over the past three years.
The demining unit was established in 2001 to ensure that Djibouti could become mine-free after years of civil war during the 1990s. While this was achieved in 2003, mines remain a threat in the region. Djibouti supports demining in Operation African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations.
As Kentucky and Djiboutian forces met in blistering temperatures, the heat, language barrier and training stresses posed challenges. However, both partner nations were able to overcome them and learn from each other.
With only one translator shared among 32 people and operating with different equipment in different areas of the Camp Lemonnier compound, creativity was essential to communicate.
"One of my most memorable moments was sharing how to use a mine detector without a translator," said Tech. Sgt. Dylan Wagner, explosive ordnance disposal technician, 123rd Airlift Wing. "Their expressions and feedback showed me that mimed actions and charades might have been more impactful than the traditional method using words. It's moments like these that make you realize how much you take for granted, and I am thankful to have had this opportunity to learn and share with my counterparts."
Lifesaving information exchange makes the State Partnership Program so meaningful for each partner nation. Safer practices and unit morale increase as a result.
"They feel good, they feel better," said Capt. Le Mohamed Louaita, commander for Djiboutian Demining Company. "When the United States comes, we can help each other be better. That is what we all need to grow and help others."
Maj. Chad Brinton, chief of the Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti, said the experience was important.
"The OSC office plays a role in the national security strategy through the United States Embassy. The State Partnership Program is a fantastic asset toward attaining that goal," said Brinton. "Your Kentucky service members come here and can share knowledge, skills and experiences that help us diplomatically, but also with Djibouti and the U.S. security interests in the region."