JOINT FORCES TRAINING BASE LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. - In 1990, 22-year-old Frank Musisi arrived in Los Angeles from Uganda with $25 in his pocket.
With dreams of studying computer science in college, Musisi, currently the officer in charge of supply services for the 79th Sustainment Support Command, had a lot of people in Uganda counting on his success. One of Musisi's cousins, a lieutenant colonel in the Ugandan military, had funded Musisi's move to the U.S. by using money he had earmarked to build a house.
"Based on your determination and drive, I believe you will be a very good investment," Musisi's cousin told him at the time, adding that he thought Musisi would be a positive force for Uganda.
That cousin's prediction rang true.
Musisi first attended Los Angeles Valley College earning an associate degree, later earning a bachelor's degree in Information and Computer Science from University of California Irvine-doing "every kind of job you can imagine" along the way to fund his education, he said. While in college, he was widely involved with Ugandan organizations in the Los Angeles area including the Ugandan Community Organization in California and the Ugandan North American Association. This networking and advocating on the behalf of Ugandan and African immigrants brought him into contact with government officials here in the U.S., and he was eventually offered a job, upon his pending graduation, with then-mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown.
But Musisi was torn. Inspired by a visit to his college from former U.S. Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell (retired), he also felt the pull to join the U.S. Army. After attending Powell's speech, he had contacted Army recruiters right away.
Musisi sought council from professors and family members who advised he join the Army first-a career in information technology or politics could wait.
Musisi made the decision. He joined the Army in 2000, and because he wasn't a U.S. citizen at the time, he first joined as an enlisted Soldier.
He received his first duty assignment as an Automated Logistical Specialist with the 31st Combat Support Hospital, 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas. Shortly into his first active duty tour, he deployed to Iraq in 2003.
While deployed, Musisi received a devastating call-his mother had fallen ill in Uganda.
Granted emergency leave, when Musisi arrived in Uganda in 2004 to visit his ailing mother he was shocked at what he found-many of his childhood friends were gone.
"The majority of my childhood friends were dead," he said solemnly. "When the list came up ... almost everyone I knew as a child was gone."
When he asked why, his mother told him it was due to HIV/AIDS, and implored him to do something about the problem.
It wouldn't be verified by the Ugandan government until later on, but at the time that Musisi visited his mother, almost one-third of the population of the Ssese Islands, Musisi's home region, was infected with HIV or AIDS. This is in stark contrast to the HIV/AIDS rate in the rest of Uganda, which sits at about seven percent (according to the Uganda AIDS Commission).
Musisi decided that he was willing to do whatever was necessary to help the people of the Ssese Islands, even if it meant committing his own time and resources.
"The clinic was mainly inspired out of the need-people were dying," Musisi explained.
The infrastructure of the Ssese Islands kept it somewhat isolated from outside government support. Musisi explained that the roads were rough, there wasn't access to electricity or running water, and the only real way to access the islands was by boat.
"People didn't have TV, and didn't have time to listen to the radio," Musisi explained, so Ugandan efforts to educate people about the dangers of AIDS through media weren't reaching the islands either.
But with his experience at an Army Combat Support Hospital, Musisi with some ideas on where to start.
Musisi first went to Uganda's Ministry of Health and asked to borrow mobile HIV/AIDS testing vans and to his surprise, they agreed. He then commissioned a feasibility study using local medical students to find out the magnitude of the problem.
"There was no scientific data that you could rely on," he explained.
Musisi and his team of medical students went out for two weeks, testing as many people as they could, and were able to come up with a baseline of how prevalent HIV/AIDS per hundred people was in the Ssese Islands.
"When we started, the population was about 30 percent positive for HIV/AIDS," Musisi said. "The government officials were not happy with my numbers-they disputed them."
Musisi agreed that this rate was alarming, and he invited the government to send its own teams to verify. It did, and Musisi reports that the government came up with an even higher rate-34 percent.
Musisi said there were several possible reasons the rate was so high in the Ssese Islands compared to the rest of the country: the isolation of the area; a higher ratio of men to women in the region; with fishing being the primary mode of income, the roving lifestyle promoted promiscuity; and an overall lack of education on how AIDS is contracted.
"People didn't realize that if you used a condom it could protect you from AIDS," Musisi explained. "Most people thought they got AIDS because God was punishing them."
With help from his mother and a few close colleagues, in 2005 Musisi established a nonprofit organization, the Ssese Islands African Aids Project, with a focus on education and testing.
In the beginning, they ran the organization out of rooms in his mother's house, then later moved into a full-fledged clinic using land that Musisi had set aside to build a country home on.
The clinic has grown from treating 700 patients per year to now treating 20,000 patients per year. It started out conducting AIDS testing and education only for the first several years, and now is a general medical clinic providing a full range of HIV/AIDS treatment following the World Health Organization's recommended "test and treat" regimen.
The Ugandan Parliament recognized the clinic's accomplishments in 2014.
When asked why SIAAP is succeeding when so many other businesses and non-profit ventures fail, Musisi answered that the non-profit's success has a lot to do with the level of personal and emotional investment of the founders.
"It's commitment," he said. "Commitment from the people who we started it with-myself and the core team of founding members. We were willing to sacrifice our own personal resources. Looking back in hindsight, I never thought we would come this far."
In fact, Musisi faced cynics when starting up SIAAP.
"When I started, 90 percent of my friends were telling me it couldn't be done," he explained. "I had friends who told me I was wasting this money-I could put this money towards Wall Street."
But Musisi wasn't deterred. Musisi promised his mother before she passed away that he would devote 25 percent of his personal income to serve the people of the Ssese Islands, as long as he was able.
"I said to myself, 'I'll do this as long as God allows me,'" Musisi explained. "I'd rather have the legacy that we did something to help humanity while here on this planet. It's an African tradition-if you receive help, you have to give back."
Musisi also explained that he believes part of the clinic's success is that he started slow. He didn't start out with a large clinic-it took years to grow the clinic to what it is today.
"Baby steps," he said. "The problem is huge, but only bite off what you can chew."
He said if others are inspired to take on an issue they see in the world or in their communities, a big misstep is trying to tackle the whole problem head-on, when in fact issues such AIDS rates are multi-faceted.
"When you see a problem that inspires you, you have to define that problem," Musisi said of gathering statistics and identifying where the needs truly lie. "If you don't define the problem, you will fail."
He also explained that rallying others to the cause is paramount.
"If you're genuine, honest, and committed, others will follow. You have to be willing to sacrifice," Musisi said. "You can't do it alone, you must mobilize others."
Soldier and Citizen
Musisi also credits the Army for his ability to see solutions where others saw a myriad of roadblocks. He recalled that during his deployment to Iraq he witnessed a 360-bed hospital built in 24 hours, "out of nowhere," he said.
"In the Army we're trained to accomplish missions regardless of obstacles," Musisi said.
That attitude has contributed to Musisi's successful Army career. Upon his return from Iraq he became an officer in the Army Reserve, went on to be selected for the Active Guard Reserve program, and was promoted to major in October 2016. Some of his previous assignments include the 311th Expeditionary Sustainment Command's bulk petroleum distribution manager for Kuwait and Southern Iraq, and the headquarters & headquarters company commander for the 377th Theater Sustainment Command.
Others have watched his success in the Army, and as a result, he has become a de facto recruiter of sorts-for several African immigrants in the Los Angeles area, Musisi is the first U.S. military member they have met. And they are intrigued.
"Most Africans will not go into a recruiting office," Musisi offered. "This is because of the historical background with the militaries of their countries ... they have this perception that the military is not good, but when they see me wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army, people are curious."
Musisi said that through his advocacy work over the years, he has come into contact with many African immigrants who never considered joining the U.S. military until they met him.
"I must say I'm proud that if I travel today to any active duty base in the U.S., there's nowhere I can go without finding a Soldier that came through my hands," Musisi said.
And that tie-in with an extended community helps Musisi when he is away from home on military duty.
"I can rely on my community to take care of my family when I have to be away," he said. "The Army compliments my work in the community. The skills are very applicable."
Through the work initiated by Musisi and SIAAP, the HIV/AIDS infection rate in the Ssese Islands is now at about 19 percent, he reports, about a 10 percent change in the last decade.
But as the clinic also now treats all kinds of illnesses and injuries, Musisi often receives stories of thanks and lives changed due to the general medical care available.
"My son was born at your facility, or, my sister was saved at your facility," Musisi said. "These are the stories I hear."
Musisi reports that his clinic's success has inspired other medical and non-profit organizations to come to the region. He also said that infrastructure development has come a long way in the last 10 years including the addition of solar power, electricity, running water, better roads, and two new ferries.
Musisi hopes to keep educating and informing the population of the Ssese Islands on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, work toward a future where there is zero new infections, and continue lifesaving work in Uganda while serving in the U.S. Army.
For Musisi, the opportunity to save lives is all the motivation he needs.
"Saving lives ... I'm telling you, that gives me so much satisfaction."