My USMC Embed in Senegal
I have the best job in the world. That's what I tell everyone who asks, and I stand by it. I'm the only person that can come off a two week business trip, and be excited enough to go to work to tell everyone about it.
My Embed in Afghanistan from the July issue of The American Legion magazine went over really well seemingly with Legionnaires who read the article, as I only got about 5 complaints. One I rejected as sort of insane (he hates the National Guard, which was off topic since the unit was not NG), and the other 4 played right into my hands. "Why", my readers asked, "do you always cover the Army and not other units?"
Fair enough. The reality is I speak Army fluently, but the other services not as much. I actually don't know much about what the Marines had going on to even know what to write about. So I wrote to a friend, Colonel Will (first name, don't want to out him totally) and asked him what I should cover. He answered straight away, "SPMAGTF."
Now, this might mean something to someone, but to me it was just letters arranged in a manner that I couldn't make out. So, I googled it, and came up with this article from the Marine Corps Times:
A select group of Marines is quietly battling terrorism across a wide swath of Africa as part of the first wave of what could become a long-term mission for the Corps.
The 180 members of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 12 are serving in the Trans-Sahel region of Africa, stretches across the center of the continent’s north along the Sahara Desert. The unit has also deployed farther east, in countries such as Djibouti.
“There are al-Qaida affiliates operating in and around this area,” said Maj. Dave Winnacker, executive officer for SPMAGTF-12. “This definitely is the next frontier as far as there is the opportunity for expansion for both ourselves and for violent extremists. Essentially, we’re trying to beat them to the punch.”
The unit, made up mostly of reservists, is focused not on combat but rather team-building with militaries scattered throughout this region, said Winnacker, a member of 4th Force Reconnaissance Company, which provided the command element.
So anyway, a week later I heard from a Public Affairs Officer from the SPMAGTF, and it was game on.
Now I am back, and while I don't want to give everything up, since it will be a cover story in December, I did owe you something since I have been gone for two weeks. So, here's a quick video that our totally incredible videographer guy put together (he put my name on it, but he actually did the heavy lifting, I just affixed the camera to a Zodiak.)
[For the record, the song is not even a little reflective of Senegal, which I absolutely loved, and I stayed in a private cabana protected by 15 Recon guys.]
So yeah, no "terrible land." I am a total wimp around snakes, so discussions about black mambas and such made me a little nervous. And they said some sort of lizard come out of one guys toilet, and that story did little to help a stomach not used to malaria medicines and a full seafood diet. But "terrible land" it was not.
So anyway, some pictures.
Chief Blakely was the main US Navy guy, and gives an impressive class. This one was on various troops leading procedures involved in Riverine operations. Blakely is a Master at Arms, which I am led to believe is essentially a Navy MP. Gave one of the better classes I've seen in my time in the military. The other gentleman is our interpreter, since the English skills of the Senegalese present varied quite a bit. (They all speak French.)
The Senegalese are involved in a low intensity fight with guerillas in the south, in an area called The Casamance. When they head in, their average combat load is between 10-20 rounds, and they only get to zero their weapons on rare occasions, since ammo is hard to come by. The Marines supplied about 50k rounds, and he marksmanship was pretty good when they get a chance to shoot. They ran, called, coached and set up the range with very little guidance from the USMC present, an improvement over previous trainings when the Marines had to walk them through setting up a safe range.
Meet US Marine Sergeant Sgt Robert M. Keane III. Dude is tougher than woodpecker lips. He joined the reserves 7 1/4 years ago, and hasn't come off active duty since. From Pensacola FL, the 26 year old has graduated from SERE, ARS, Combatant Dive Supervisor, HALO, Jump Master and many other schools. He hopes to go to school to be an Aeronautical Engineer. Has been deployed to South America, Iraq, Rwanda, Tanzania, Rota Spain and then here. After each session he led the group in 25 + 5 pushups, a hall mark of Recon Marines.
Kind of hard to make this out, but the Senegalese Cofumaco (Company Fusiliers Marine Commandos) guys had to use photocopies of maps since they didn't have their own. Of course a photocopy changes the sizes of things, and the paper doesn't work well in 100 percent humidity. They also only had one compass for every squad of guys. Nonetheless, the squad I was with managed to find all 3 of their points with no help from us. On the first movement of 590 meters, the navigator finished his pace count and his point was only 46 meters away to his right. Had he had an actual map, he would have walked right into it. After a brief stop he took 3 steps and saw the orange VS17 panel marking the actual point, and the Cofumaco came up on line and assaulted across the objective. VERY impressive.
This is Major Waller, the leader of the Team in Senegal. I won't say much about him here (will save for the article) but hard not to get a mancrush on him as a leader and as a man. He spent every waking moment trying to get the most out of the training for the Senegalese (and two Togo guys) even as he told me about how his next job when he returns to Louisiana is the one he wants to be best at; being a Dad. Just a wonderful man, and astonishingly bright. His troops referred to him as a "true believer" and spoke about him glowingly. Whether he was training, writing up reports, or trying to plan the crab bake, the guy was moving at 100mph, and would still take time out to answer the reporters dopey questions.
If trouble ever does migrate to Senegal (as Terrorism is creeping that way) we will have a friend in Senegal because of acts like this. One day Major Waller was driving around the town of Toubacouta where we trained, and he noticed that the Senegal flag in front of the tribal chief's house was looking rather unserviceable. Major Waller asked his guys on their next trip to Dakar (the Capital) to pick up two new ones. He gave this one to the village elder here, and he gave another one to the Counsul of the area. (The guy that the government sends down to make sure they have a functional tie to the federal government.) This man, and his son (who is translating here) were so grateful they had tears in their eyes. After we gave it to him, he asked if he could pray over us, something all of us were happy to oblige.
And little things like that is what turns acquaintenances into friends.
Anyway, there will be much more from my trip coming soon, but I figured I owed you guys at least a snapshot of what I saw.