CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti – National Guard units bring unique and cohesive capabilities that enable U.S. forces to give back to the many partner nations who operate in Djibouti. Providing security is at the heart of every mission for a brigade combat team, no matter where the mission takes place, and in the rugged terrain of East Africa, the National Guard’s 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain) has leveraged strong partnerships to ensure mission success.
Guard units rotate as the security force element for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, where they provide security, crisis response capabilities and build partnerships. The current task force, Task Force Iron Gray, is comprised of Soldiers from the 86th IBCT.
“We stand guard, and we are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Morgan, the senior enlisted leader for Task Force Iron Gray. “We don’t close the front gate, and we don’t stop our mission.”
Task Force Iron Gray, approximately 1,000 Soldiers from the Connecticut, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont National Guard, is East Africa’s largest U.S. military ground force. Over the past nine months, they performed security operations in Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti, where most of the Task Force is located at Camp Lemonnier.
Security operations are a key part of Task Force Iron Gray’s mission. Djibouti is located 18 miles across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, connecting the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. A significant amount of the world’s trade and natural resources flow through the strategic shipping lanes, and several nations have a presence in Djibouti to promote stability in the region.
“We are at the corner of one of the superhighways of commerce for the world,” Morgan said. Djibouti’s northern border is especially strategic, as about 10% of the world’s seaborne trade moves through the Red Sea.
Task Force Iron Gray is also responsible for crisis response throughout East Africa and the protection of U.S. forces is a no fail mission.
The East Africa Response Force, a light infantry company from Task Force Iron Gray, serves as part of U.S. Africa Command’s crisis response capability and responds to emergencies at U.S. embassies in the East African region and countries around the CJTF-HOA area of responsibility. The protection of United States citizens from threats is an enduring priority for CJTF-HOA. As a result, CJTF-HOA plans and prepares for a multitude of contingency operations throughout East Africa.
Efforts to promote regional stability cross multiple nations’ borders, and Task Force Iron Gray is often at the heart of multi-national engagements. Soldiers work alongside their counterparts in Kenya and Djibouti; combined with episodic engagements in Somalia, these activities promote the strategic partnerships necessary for Task Force Iron Gray to succeed at its security mission.
“Working together routinely helps strengthen our partnerships and builds the strengths of all the nations in the Horn of Africa,” Morgan said. This was a difficult task at the beginning of their deployment because strict COVID-19 lockdown precautions were in place when they arrived in March of 2021, halting most international engagements.
Once restrictions eased, the Soldiers reignited partnerships with their Djiboutian, French, Japanese, Italian and Spanish military counterparts by conducting joint events, including live-fire exercises, air movements, and weapon familiarization.
Partnership-focused activities take place frequently in Djibouti. Guardsmen have completed the French Desert Commando Course, which is extremely grueling and highly-coveted training.
FDCC is one example of the types of engagements that bring together different nations and cultures to practice working with one another in new ways.
“I didn’t come here thinking that I’d be working with different nations as much as I have. I’m extremely grateful for that opportunity,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Riczu, a combat medic from Milford, Connecticut, with Task Force Iron Gray. “The coolest thing to see was that we’re all humans, and regardless of the country we come from, we’re still soldiers. It was comforting to see we are all pretty much on the same page.”
Riczu attended live-fire range engagements with the Japanese and Spanish, and participated in the French Desert Commando Course (FDCC). Of all the experiences he gained, graduating the commando course had a special meaning for him.
“I have a French lineage,” said Riczu. “My grandparents are French, and my grandfather served in the military. So, that’s something that was close to my heart and something that I kept in the back of my head during the course.”
Earning the official foreign badge was a unique point of pride for Riczu.
“You can’t get the badge anywhere else in the world. You have to be deployed to Djibouti and selected to go to this course,” he said. “It gives it that sentimental value, knowing you earned that badge.”
In return, Riczu had an opportunity to support his French counterparts toward the end of his tour in Djibouti. As the Task Force wraps up its rotation, one of their last multi-national events was the Joint Expeditionary Mountain Warfare Course, which included instructors from the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School in Vermont joining assistant instructors from Task Force Iron Gray to conduct the course for French Forces, Dec. 12-16, 2021.
“People don’t realize how mountainous and how rugged it is here,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Frank Tantillo, Task Force Iron Gray commander. “Bringing the mountain school to Africa, the American way of performing mountain warfare tactics and techniques, and to instruct our French partners, is definitely something that we are uniquely capable of doing because it’s our school associated with our brigade and our National Guard states.”
Tantillo added that it was a goal of his for Task Force Iron Gray to reciprocate the experiences the French Foreign Legion shared with the U.S. military for the past 17 years, by offering them the ability to attend FDCC.
“Through almost a year-long partnership, we have done a lot more with them than just the mountain school,” Tantillo said. “We have done joint live-fires, medical training, physical competitions, and establishing that soldier-to-soldier relationship through these engagements has been invaluable. Now we are providing this mountain school to them, and it’s the capstone event for our deployment here in Africa.”
Although Task Force Iron Gray’s time in the Horn of Africa is drawing to a close, the Guard presence will continue when they transfer authority of the mission to their replacements from the Virginia National Guard’s 1-116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
“We’re not done yet, but if we packed our bags and went home tomorrow, we will have successfully completed the mission while taking care of the Soldiers,” Morgan said. He added that one of the biggest successes of the mission was increasing their readiness while performing the mission daily.
“As a side effect of completing the mission, it has built our readiness, and when you improve readiness, you automatically improve lethality, and we are a mountain infantry company, that is our buzzword, lethality,” he said.