U.S. Marines support Somalia-bound Djiboutian motor group


A small team of Sicily-based Marines spent nearly three weeks partnering with Djiboutian supply and maintenance soldiers slated to support their nation’s first deployment of troops to the African Union mission in Somalia.

In the coming months, the East African soldiers will join about 9,000 other peacekeepers already dealing with the coastal nation’s al Shabab insurgency. The al-Qaida-linked group threatens Somalia’s transitional federal government and continually hampers the international humanitarian assistance efforts that began after a severe drought struck the region.

The Djiboutian armed forces plan on taking over a dozen humvees with them as part of an 890-strong force charged with helping stabilize the embattled Somali capital of Mogadishu and surrounding areas. Split into mechanics and warehousing sections, the 12 Marine-team worked with their Djiboutian counterparts between November 25 to December 13 to ensure the vehicles would be ready and remain running throughout their deployment.
“This is a local war; it’s in a city not in the bush. These humvees are good for that kind of war,” said 1st Sgt. Sayed Muhammed, the assistant maintenance chief with the elite FAD Rapid Action Force, adding that the agile vehicles are useful as reconnaissance scouts.

Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12, the team’s parent command, was formed from Marine Forces Reserve units over the summer and tasked with acting as a platform for sending small security and logistics cooperation teams into Africa to train with local militaries facing regional terror threats or instability. Marine leadership say the unit and its types of missions are in line with what could be a big part of the Corps’ future after Afghanistan, where total U.S. forces are slated to shrink by 33,000 in 2012.

As II Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Forces Africa Commanding General Lt. Gen. John M. Paxton put it when he spoke to task force Marines in Sicily on November 19: “You’re breaking new ground here.”

The 130 Marines and sailors of the unit have already sent teams into two other countries on the continent and are preparing for future missions.

At Camp Chiek Osman outside Djibouti City, most of the humvees were provided by U.S. forces in 2005 and were still in working condition when the team arrived. The Marines quickly learned that their counterparts were capable mechanics, able to handle complex jobs such as transmission rebuilds without assistance. Men from both forces meticulously inspected each vehicle together before jointly deciding on maintenance plans.

For the most part, the FAD mechanics requested the Marines’ help checking their work.
“They’d ask me to listen to engine,” said task force heavy equipment mechanic and Omaha, Neb., native Sgt. Travis Holz, referring to one instance. “They’d replaced the cylinder heads and did a really good job.”

A few hundred yards from the motor pool is the sprawling 2,500 square-foot warehouse that supplies the parts and fluids that keep the engines humming.

A four-man FAD staff kept track of more than 75,000 inventory items on a handful of computers – three desktops that went down two years ago and a laptop that ran out of steam over the summer. Since then, handwritten notes had served as the only records and were often unreliable.
“What you have on hand and what you need is now guess work,” said Chief Warrant Officer Abdi Houssein, the camp supply manager.

Gunnery Sgt. Robert Lusk, the task force communications chief and a Roseville, Calif., native, has never purchased a desktop computer. Instead, he builds his own. His first job after completing his Marine Corps training was in microcircuit repair. He has since worked his way through a wide range of software, hardware and server maintenance and management positions and currently works as a corporate technical consultant in between Marine Corps activations.

He, along with several others on the team, were chosen for the mission based on their civilian expertise in addition to their military occupational specialties, reflecting the Reserve roots of the unit. Only about half of the team’s Marines were mechanics and supply specialists because most of the others were deployed elsewhere in the continent or needed in Sicily when the call for the Djibouti mission came through.

Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, based in nearby Camp Lemonnier, made the request for assistance on behalf of the FAD Nov. 16, nine days before Marines were on the ground. This type of short notice mission is typical of what SPMAGTF-12 is designed to accomplish explained Capt. Joseph T. Whittington, team leader and St. Louis, Mo. native.
“This unit represents the full spectrum of what the Marine Corps can do,” he said, explaining that future missions could just as likely call for things like humanitarian aid or bilateral infantry tactics training.

Lusk managed to solder and splice the desktops back to life and pulled years of stock data from the recently damaged laptop while other warehouse section Marines worked with a Djiboutian supply soldier to decipher French records and locate technical manuals and catalogs in an adjacent room.

The Djiboutian forces identified a lack of supplies as their biggest stumbling block – they have no dedicated garage for humvee repair and limited spare parts, tools and fluids. While the Marines couldn’t build them a new maintenance shop, they could share the ways they’ve stretched the life times of their vehicles in a branch of the U.S. military that has historically functioned with less funding than the others.

Strict maintenance schedules and records coupled with a more efficient warehouse could save the FAD motor pool money and man hours down the road, they said. After the vehicles were ready to go, the Marines spent a few days going over preventative maintenance practices and supply techniques with the FAD.
“An oil change every 3,000 miles is a lot cheaper than a new engine every year,” explained Cpl. James Bailey, a task force motor transport mechanic and Baltimore native.

With the team’s time in country drawing to a close, the Marines wished their counterparts luck during their deployment and toasted to their success during one of the forces’ daily tea breaks. The mission was the first partnership undertaken by SPMAGTF-12 in Djibouti and the first opportunity to interact with foreign forces for many on the team.

Sgt. Alan Nudo, a heavy equipment mechanic from San Francisco, worked “inside the wire” during his last deployment to Iraq and never got the chance to talk to the locals or experience the culture beyond the base gates, he said. Aboard Camp Cheik Osman he was quick to take pictures with the FAD mechanics he worked side by side with and asked numerous questions about their way of life, often in rapid fire succession. Livestock milled around between the humvees and camel crossings delayed road tests.
“A lot of mechs don’t get this kind of opportunity,” he said.