By Donna Miles
CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti, , Oct. 22, 2006 – Doing good here in the Horn of Africa is a key to ensuring that terrorism doesn't gain a foothold in the region, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa told visiting civilian leaders yesterday. In this impoverished part of the world that struggles with disease, drug running, human trafficking, smuggling and pockets of extremism, the best way to fight terrorism is to stop it before it takes root, Navy Rear Adm. Richard Hunt told participants in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.
"The conditions out there to support terrorism are ripe," Hunt told the group of business, academic and community leaders. "Our job is to diffuse that situation."
As Hunt sees it, the United States and its coalition partners have two basic choices. "Africa is the new frontier that we need to engage with now, or we are going to end up doing it later in a very negative way," he said.
Some 1,800 members of CJTF-HOA are engaging now as they help bring stability, security and hope to the region, Hunt told the civilian leaders.
CJTF-HOA was initially formed in November 2002 as a seafaring force aimed at blocking terrorists fleeing Afghanistan from establishing a new safe haven here, Hunt told the group. But within six months, the task force moved ashore and its mission morphed into a blend of military cooperation, military-to-military training and humanitarian assistance over a massive, eight-country region.
Hunt calls this work "phase zero" of warfare, aimed at preventing the conflict before it starts. "What we're trying to do here is change the conditions and the environment people exist in to keep that kind of conflict from happening," he said.
Part of those efforts goes toward ensuring host nation militaries have the capabilities they need to defend their governments. Special operations forces here travel throughout the region, teaching not just military leadership, but also about human rights and the law of armed conflict-relatively foreign concepts for regional militaries, Hunt told the group.
A visit to the CJFT-HOA headquarters here and communities in the region reveals the faces of the other, less traditional warriors in the fight against terrorism here.
They're doctors like Army Lt. Col. Dan Shoor, who goes out with his team into local villages to treat patients and share medical expertise with local care providers. They're civil affairs specialists like Army Spc. Eric Hayes, an Army Reservist from Florida who coordinates with local officials to identify community needs and help come up with a plan to address them. They're Seabees like Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dennis Ryan, who's building a dormitory at a local school so young girls from distant villages can get an education.
Through these efforts, members of CJTF-HOA say they're establishing trust and building relationships that not only improve people's lives, but also discourage terrorist ambitions.
"We're about rebuilding countries that need help and building a partnership with the U.S.," said Hayes. "We're winning hearts and minds, hands down. So if al Qaeda were to move into this area, the people here would choose to side with us."
"You don't want another Afghanistan, with (terrorists) coming in here," said Navy Petty Officer Tensely Worthy, who supports law enforcement and security operations here. "We're here showing the people here a better life, helping them become self-sufficient and helping them realize that you don't have to succumb to terrorism," he said.
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Cherri Crockett, a storekeeper for CJTF-HOA's logistics office, said CJTF-HOA's work is helping the local people realize that they have the power to improve their circumstances. "We're teaching them that you don't have to let terrorism come in and pay for things," she said. "They can do it on their own."
Shoor emphasized that the efforts aren't designed to make the host countries dependent on the United States, but rather, to give them the leg up they need to begin taking control of their own futures. "You don't want to give them a fish," he said. "You want to teach them to fish."
"Our focus is on showing them how it could be," said Ryan, who with his fellow Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 is improving the district's only secondary school. "We're providing a U.S. presence here, building these facilities for them and helping them see what's possible."
Although he lives in a dusty tent outside the village with few amenities and even fewer creature comforts, Ryan said he wouldn't trade his position for anything. "Everybody who's here loves being here," he said.
Other members of the task force share Ryan's sentiment. "When we get to go out on missions, that's what we live for," agreed Navy Petty Officer Michelle Bates, an intelligence specialist with CJTF-HOA. "I'm gratified because I get to go out and work with the local people in the communities," added Hayes, a member of the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion. "It fulfills me."
"The people here want us here, and they enjoy us being here," said Worthy. But the greatest satisfaction he and his fellow task force members get comes from the reception they receive from the local children whenever they encounter them. "The biggest thing that tugs at your heart is the kids," he said.
Crockett said she's hopeful the work CJTF-HOA is doing will leave a lasting impression on these children for years to come. "We really, really want these people to know that we were here," she said.
Members of the JCOC group visited Tadjoura to see projects underway at the school and medical clinic, and got a taste of the satisfaction the troops here say they experience every day as they distributed school supplies and soccer balls to the local children.
"I had tears in my eyes," Frank Naglieri, battalion chief for the New York Fire Department's hazardous materials operations, said of the emotional exchange.
Like many of his fellow JCOC participants, Naglieri said he had "no idea" of the scope of the humanitarian assistance mission underway here, but said he's convinced that it's astep toward deterring terrorism in the region.
"The mission they're tasked to do here is the only thing that's really (going) to work," he said. "They have to stop it here before the cancer is allowed to grow."
The JCOC program was created in 1948 to introduce civilian "movers and shakers" with little or no military exposure to the armed forces. Nearly six decades later, it remains the Defense Department's premier civic leader program.