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Members of SPMAGTF-12 went swimming with whale sharks while on liberty during a Djibouti deployment. (Courtesy of Gunnery Sgt. Robert Lusk)
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.
Members of 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company make up most of the ground combat element, and it's assisted from above by two KC-130T Hercules, one each from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452 and VMGR-234. Rounding out the SPMAGTF are a variety of Marines from 41 other drill centers across the Reserve, plus some active-duty Marines and nine corpsmen, Winnacker said.
"Literally, we have a little bit of everything," he said. "From mortarmen, reconnaissance men, tankers, all the way up to [explosive ordnance disposal technicians] and logisticians. … If the Marine Corps has it, we've probably got one of them."
It's another high-profile mission for the Reserve, where new opportunities continue to emerge. Another Reserve-led SPMAGTF, the Black Sea Rotational Force, is gearing up for March and its third six-month cycle. In that mission, Marines train with foreign militaries across Eastern Europe, in countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia.
The Africa unit activated in June, conducted pre-deployment training through September and deployed in October to Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. Marines have since been deploying to the Trans-Sahel region to train foreign militaries on various missions. By the time the six-month stint is over, Winnacker said he expects SPMAGTF-12 to have completed eight "major exercises," involving teams of 15 to 20 Marines. In addition, he expects 15 to 20 smaller missions, which he described as involving two to five Marines on one- to four-week missions.
There are no ship-to-shore operations, Winnacker said. When a mission is scheduled, Marines deploy from Italy via KC-130s to their target location in Africa.
Once there, the Marines can cover a broad range of topics, including small-arms training, vehicle maintenance, indirect fire skills, combat engineering and intelligence planning.
Although the primary mission is training foreign militaries, the Marines could also be tapped to provide limited humanitarian assistance, said Brig. Gen. Chuck Chiarotti, deputy commander of Marine Forces Africa. The Marines could also be used in a variety of missions that "could enable support of U.S. forces supporting [U.S. Africa Command and U.S. European Command] areas of operations," Chiarotti said.
He praised the Marines' efforts in Africa thus far.
"We're seeing a high return on our investment," he said. "We've got young [noncommissioned officers] out there that are engaging and training some of our partners in preparations for their own individual country's missions. … If you want a measure of success, it's when we see an African country that can respond to an internal crisis, a humanitarian crisis, or help a neighbor across the continent."
In the years to come, the mission could grow, Chiarotti said, and could include more Marines from the active component.
Winnacker is reluctant to name precisely all the places his Marines have deployed in the Trans-Sahel, citing concerns from partner nations that did not want to publicize their own missions or military needs.
An 18-member team recently returned from a 75-day stint in West Africa. The Marines spent their deployment training troops in the country's only logistics company. Some had never fired an AK47, their military's primary weapon, or even driven a vehicle, said Master Sgt. Bill Simpson, a reconnaissance man.
"It was almost like training a recruit before they went to boot camp," he said, adding that many of the foreign troops had little knowledge of America.
"Basically, we're putting a presence in another country," Simpson said. "We're putting a face for the United States of America."
By the end, the foreign troops were performing Marine physical training and had begun to empower more of their NCOs, just like in the Marine Corps.
Simpson, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in some ways, his current mission offers more challenges. The areas are austere and, with little logistics support, Simpson said, "We're basically on our own."
That's also what makes force recon the right unit for the job, he said, because these Marines "have more experience working autonomously."
One mission Marines were cleared to speak on in some detail was their recent trip to Djibouti.
In November, the unit received word that Djiboutian armed forces needed help readying Humvees for a future deployment to Somalia, where they will battle the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab insurgency. Al-Shabaab is a militia that has launched attacks in East Africa, The Washington Post has reported, to include suicide bombings in Uganda and Kenya.
From Nov. 25 to Dec. 13, a team of 12 Marines worked side by side with Djiboutian troops at Camp Cheik Osman, located less than five miles from Camp Lemonier. The mission involved Marine mechanics, motor management officers and warehouse specialists, Winnacker said. When done, the Djiboutians had 16 working Humvees and a thorough knowledge of how to maintain them. In addition, the Marines helped organize the warehouse and create a digital log to track parts and maintenance.
Winnacker, a civilian firefighter with the Alameda County Fire Department in California, said the Reserve is well-suited to the flexibility required of the Africa mission.
In Djibouti, for instance, the Marines learned that the computers for the foreign troops' learning center and warehouse were fried. Fortunately, Gunnery Sgt. Robert Lusk, a communications chief, was on the mission. A computer hobbyist and information technology consultant back home, Lusk was able to repair their computers using a soldering iron and magnifying glass.
The soldiers, who had been using outdated VHS cassettes and Beta tapes to learn English, could now use updated computer programs. They also had two laptops repaired for use on their Somalia deployment, Lusk said.
Capt. Joseph Whittington, a logistics officer who went on the Djibouti mission, said the deployment is a stark contrast to his combat tours in Iraq, which were more or less stationary at Camp Taqaddum.
Working with translators, and a lot of nonverbal communication, Whittington said the Marines forged a bond with their Djiboutian counterparts.
Each workday, the troops would take a coffee and tea break around 9 a.m., and share stories, Whittington said.
One Djiboutian warrant officer, nicknamed "The Father of Love," told Marines how he, as a private, fought for the heart of a young woman whose mother instead hoped to set her up with a sergeant major. The superior made life very difficult for the private, whose love died before they had a chance to marry.
"We really were able to open up," Whittington said, adding that he will carry the story of the Djiboutian officer with him. "We'd have a good break, great conversation … then get back to work to not only motivate us to work, but to re-enhance the bonds that were made."
The air mission
Forty-six Marines make up the air element of SPMAGTF-12, with half serving as aircrew and the other half as maintainers, said Maj. Jeff Demers, operations officer for VMGR-452 Detachment Alpha.
The unit originally deployed for Operation Unified Protector, the support mission in Libya. From Sept. 15 through October, the unit performed refueling for helicopters operating from the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde, Demers said. When that mission ended, the Marines were told to sit tight at Sigonella and they were soon added to SPMAGTF-12.
"For us, and the Marines that are here, this is an opportunity to deploy," Demers said, adding that for 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, there are not a lot of chances. "It's very good for the young Marines."
The main mission for these Marines is to transport ground forces and their necessary equipment. A typical flight takes eight to 10 hours, often requiring crews to stay overnight in the African countries to rest up before the return to Italy. Crews don't typically stay more than one night.
"We're always going in and out of Africa," Demers said, adding that they expected to log 70 flight hours in December.
The biggest challenge for the air mission, Demers said, is working through the diplomatic channels and lead time necessary to fly into the countries' airspace.
Eat, sleep like locals
The living conditions that Marines on the ground face vary by country.
Simpson's unit stayed in what was called a "hotel" but was really a concrete building with patch roofs and cots.
For food, they were assigned a local "chef." Marines would buy livestock at the market, such as goats and sheep, and then they would be slaughtered before meal time "so it would be fresh," Simpson said. His best meal that trip? Warthog.
Living like the locals goes a long way when it comes to building trust, Simpson said.
Winnacker said units' other trips have had even less luxury, having to sleep under canvas and eat MREs.
Spending all hours of the day in close proximity with the troops leads to some downtime and limited opportunity for liberty.
Winnacker praised his Marines' ability to maintain their maturity during these off hours.
In Djibouti, Lusk said his Marines had a chance to take a snorkeling trip in the Gulf of Aden with Djiboutian soldiers — and whale sharks.
The Marines traveled with the soldiers on a skiff, found a family of 30-foot-long, plankton- eating beasts and jumped overboard.
While fun, Lusk said the swim also strengthened the bond between Marines and soldiers.
Although the mission may sound relatively tame, the security risks are very real, Winnacker said. While not going into details, he confirmed "anti-terrorism force protection measures are robust" among the troops, in the event of an emergency. All missions are thoroughly vetted before boots hit the ground.
And although the mission is not about kicking in doors, it's an important one for the longevity of African partnerships, Winnacker said.
SPMAGTF-12 will rotate out of Italy in the spring, and 3rd Force Recon will take over the command element. Rotations for fiscal 2013 "are being sourced," Winnacker added.
This SPMAGTF will continue to evolve, Chiarotti said.
"As we look at this in the out years — '13, '14, '15, — what capabilities would we need to improve on what we have?" the brigadier general said.
While it wouldn't grow to the level of a 2,300-member Marine expeditionary unit, Chiarotti said, the SPMAGTF could add Marines in order to be "as relevant as possible."
"We're going to find what that size is," Chiarotti said. "Is it 200? Is it 300? I don't know."
Relationship building with the Africa countries is likely to remain high on the priority list for these Marines, Winnacker said.
"If you drive through the streets with your windows rolled up at a high rate of speed and honking your horn, you're probably not going to be invited back," he said.