DOUALA, Cameroon--A team from the New York Army National Guard is keeping service members from the United States and partner nations moving during Exercise Central Accord 14 here.
Central Accord 14 is a U.S. Army Africa-led multinational exercise hosted by Cameroon. The exercise brings together approximately 1,000 troops from eight nations including the United States, Nigeria, Gabon, Burundi, Republic of Congo, Chad and the Netherlands. U.S. participants include contingents from the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and the Air and Army National Guards.
The exercise promotes multinational partnerships to build capacity in Central Africa.
Soldiers from the 369th Sustainment Brigade, New York, N.Y. known as the "Harlem Hellfighters" are responsible for a multinational unit called the Joint Reception, Staging, Onward movement, and Integration team. They are joined by members of the Cameroonian defense forces, a national policeman from the Republic of Congo and a service member from Gabon.
"We receive the Soldiers into the country for the mission; we provide them lodging and get them ready to continue their mission here in country," said Spc. Daren E. Mills, a JRSOI team member. "It's our responsibility to know when all U.S. military personnel come into the country and when they are leaving. We know when their flight is so that we can coordinate transportation in and out of the country."
The 369th, part of the New York Army National Guard's 53rd Troop Command, is handling most of the logistics for the multinational exercise, which is held annually to strengthen American and African military partnerships.
"These sorts of partnerships are important because it shows us how other countries' militaries operate," said Sgt. Maj. Orell Golding, the brigade's operations sergeant major. "It allows us how to return to the roots of soldiering and also challenges us to improvise."
For American troops to be part of the exercise, transit plans have to be made and executed and there has to be someone on the other end -- that is where the JRSOI team comes in.
"We really provide a unique capability and we have experience working in Africa," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michele DiGeso, the JRSOI team chief. "We are trained to come into an austere environment, plan and establish the framework necessary to bring multinational forces into the theater, maintain accountability for them and then send them home when the mission is complete."
"We are here to form partnerships and friendships with other nations, working with them --forming a bond with them -- individuals working together -- it doesn't matter what country they are from," said Golding. "Every day we are learning from each other. Whatever they are going through, we have gone through the same thing before and vice versa. We are here to learn from them, it's not just they who are learning from us."
Some of the knowledge the unit shares with their African partners is the military planning process.
"In the U.S., most maneuvers are conceived and you have to follow a particular plan of action, but here in Africa, we make do with what we have at our disposal," said Congolese national police Capt. Patrick Ossate, a JRSOI team member.
"Today we taught them how to do what we call anticipation planning: being able to walk into an austere environment, do an assessment, anticipate challenges, then define those challenges to develop course of actions to overcome them," said DiGeso.
DiGeso feels confident they can export these skills outside of Central Africa. "At the end of this exercise they will be ready to take the outline of what they are learning and be able to apply it."
African members seemed to appreciate the team's teaching methods.
"This is my first time working with American forces - it's been a learning experience and I've learned a lot," said Ossate. "We started by learning the theory and then went to a practical application of what we learned."
A multinational environment, with different languages spoken provided some challenges for the team.
"Most of us don't speak French very well, but by having strong interpersonal skills, a genuine care for what you are doing, and trying to build this partnership goes a long way," said DiGeso. "Plus it will not only make them better Soldiers, it will make the team better human beings - because now they've seen cultures across the world and learning to see how other people live it will allow them to be better soldiers."
Working and learning together on a daily basis, a multicultural workplace can often be beneficial.
"Our African teammates have also taught my team and me the importance of maintaining relationships with their neighbors and the fact that we, as Americans, need to be more culturally aware," said DiGeso.
"There are many similarities in the lives we lead," said Mills. "Just because there is an ocean between us -- we are still humans, we are still people -- so we connected on that level. We like to laugh and have fun, while still getting the work done.
The Harlem-based 369th is geographically located in cosmopolitan New York City, a place where many types of people life together, often in close quarters.
"Coming from New York City gives us an advantage because there is a great mosaic of different ethnicities, personalities and cultures," said DiGeso. "We come from a community that embraces it and I think we were better prepared to be in this environment -- and automatically open our arms up and say that we want to learn more about this culture."
The African members of the team also showed excitement with the partnership.
"Working together, I get to know how things are done in America," said Cameroonian air force Capt. Geh Dickson, the senior Cameroonian team member. "We have been working for just one week, but it feels like we have known each other for many years and that to me is a plus - it's not a friendship that I'm about to lose."
While the 369th officially does not have an official African partnership, members of the team are hoping that positive results from this year will allow them to return back to Africa again.
"I've heard that they are discussing [Central Accord 15] and that they might be interested in my team," said DiGeso. "I hope I am passing down my knowledge to the team we have this year and that they will continue to build on and the playbook that we've been developing these last three years."
Only a few members of the 369th are full-time Soldiers, the rest are citizen-Soldiers who serve part time.
"We live normal lives," said Mills. "But when the time comes, we step up and do more to serve our country, whether it be an emergency, supporting combat or anything like that -- citizen-Soldiers like me are people who say that they want to be more than just be a regular person -- there is more to me -- there is something I have that I want to share with my country and the world."