Small Army Post Supports Counterterrorism Fight in Africa
CONTINGENCY LOCATION GAROUA, Cameroon --
At an Army outpost in a sun-scorched area of northern Cameroon, there's a small task force with larger implications than its size may suggest.
With about 200 soldiers, airmen and contractors, the unit supports Cameroon's military in its fight against violent Boko Haram extremists. The extremist group is responsible for killing, kidnapping and displacing thousands of people.
The task force provides security and logistics support for U.S. Africa Command's unmanned aerial vehicles, which gather intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of nearby hot spots to help the Cameroonians locate and defeat the enemy.
"We're not in the fight ourselves," said Maj. Max Ferguson, commander of the 101st Airborne Division-led task force. "We're not shooting missiles, we're not on the ground taking the fight to the enemy, but we're assisting them with information and intelligence."
In October, Ferguson's unit was replaced by soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division to continue the same mission.
As the first foreign military presence to be stationed in the former French colony since it gained independence in 1960, the task force also serves as an experiment in the U.S. government's strategy in West Africa.
"Most of the older [Cameroonian] adults remember being a colony under the French," Ferguson said, "so it's in their DNA to be cautious and mistrustful of foreign government involvement in their country."
With no State Department personnel stationed in the area, soldiers are often placed into a warrior-diplomat role, representing the American government wherever they go. Any misconduct by a soldier could spark controversy and put the nascent relationship between both countries in jeopardy.
"We're mindful of that and we make sure our guys treat everybody with dignity and respect," said Ferguson, of New Rochelle, New York. "We want to put our best foot forward so that people get a good impression."
Travel restrictions due to the Boko Haram threat also prevent many Americans from traveling this far north into Cameroon. The lack of American presence puts soldiers even more under the spotlight.
Soldiers recognize they may be shaping a Cameroonian's opinion of who an American is in person, Ferguson said, as many of them have preconceived notions of Americans from Hollywood films or mass media.
"When we go out in town and meet Cameroonians it's very plausible that is the first time they've met an American," he said.
For locals to see firsthand the value of having U.S. forces in the region, soldiers strive to help communities through civil affairs projects, supporting orphanages and schools, boosting the local economy and improving sanitation at the regional hospital.
Those efforts, according to the major, assist the U.S. government in building trust and cooperation with the country and its people. "I can show and demonstrate the goodwill and the benefits of having an American presence here in their country," he said.
The Cameroonian Air Force Base in Garoua, where the Army outpost has been located since 2015, has reaped the rewards of these projects, too. Soldiers have delivered supplies and desks to the school on base so children aren't forced to sit on the ground, and Army medics have lent a hand to nurses at the base clinic, among other projects.
"The partnership is going everywhere now; it's not only military," said Cameroonian Col. Barthelemy Tsilla, the air base commander.
Tsilla's airmen fly close air support missions against Boko Haram and rely on the task force's capabilities to find enemy fighting positions for them. In turn, the air base offers an extra layer of protection around the Army outpost to keep U.S. troops safe.
"We have a big responsibility to look after our American friends who have come to help us," Tsilla said, adding that the professionalism of the soldiers has impressed him. "As things are going, it's very easy to work with them. The U.S. Army is very disciplined and respectful. That is very important."
Even with Cameroonian guards outside the gate, along with walled barriers, lines of concertina wire and sentry towers manned by Army infantrymen, many dangers still lurk inside the camp.
From venomous snakes to large spiders, malaria-infected mosquitoes and other harmful insects, soldiers can fall victim to bites that are painful for a long time or can be life-threatening.
"As far as the wildlife goes, there are all kinds of things that can hurt you," Ferguson said.
A few times each week, soldiers come across carpet vipers, black mambas, cobras or other types of snakes. Instead of using a red light for tactical purposes at night, soldiers beam white lights on the ground so they can spot a snake slithering by them.
"We're more concerned about getting [bit] by a snake waiting to attack a lizard, mouse or something else that lives on this camp," Ferguson said.
Army Spc. Warren Stuart, a task force member who’s also a former park ranger from South Africa's Greater Kruger National Park Region, taught a safety class to fellow soldiers.
Using his extensive knowledge of deadly snakes, he recently recorded a video of his class so those arriving to the camp after him can still be prepared.
"It's literally life or death," Stuart said . "One mistake or one slip-up and you're potentially dead or you've lost your career because you're missing your arm or hand."
With no anti-venom treatment available at the camp and only an aid station to treat soldiers, the task force spends a lot of time refining its medical evacuation procedures.
"It doesn't really matter how someone gets hurt," Ferguson said, "we focus a lot of attention on our medical plan because [Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in] Germany is 3,000 miles away."
While medics can stabilize a patient for a limited amount of time, the task force can either wait for a U.S. military aircraft to transport them to Germany or to a closer military hospital in an allied country. If the injury is too severe, Garoua's regional hospital can be used.
Being isolated from the rest of the U.S. military presents additional challenges. Because of its location, the task force has a more intricate chain of command.
"In this deployment, I like to relay that I have two dads and an uncle," Ferguson said.
The major explained that his unit has a higher headquarters with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, but it is operationally controlled by U.S. Army Africa command in Vicenza, Italy. There is also a strong coordinating relationship with the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon.
"Between those three, I have to balance all the different requirements and expectations," he said. "Balancing all of those has become a bigger challenge than I've ever had to deal with."
On the other hand, the isolation gives the task force the ability to assign more responsibility to its younger soldiers, who often have to be the jack-of-all-trades to complete tasks.
"This is mission command at its finest," the major said. "We are spread out [with] junior leaders across a decentralized area making decisions and having huge impacts."
With Army leaders seeing the future of warfare being more complex with Soldiers fighting in a multi-domain battlefield, these types of missions that allow empowered young leaders to lead dispersed forces may become the new norm.
"Every mission is going to be unique," said Army Brig. Gen. Eugene J. LeBoeuf, acting commander of U.S. Army Africa.
For the task force, overcoming its problems so it can continue its mission could greatly influence Cameroon and other West African countries to be stronger allies against terrorist groups.
"The future is bright," LeBoeuf said of the region. "But the future is bright because of the institutions in these countries. If we can help strengthen [those institutions], then we have a partnership for years and years to come."