CAMP LEMONNIER, DJIBOUTI – French Armed Forces stationed in Djibouti alongside U.S. service members with Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) completed the four phases of the grueling French Desert Commando Course across Djibouti April 5-June 1.
The austere environment of Djibouti provided the perfect training ground for the course, which is an icon of the French Armed Forces. For the French Soldiers, this is just the Desert phase of the training; jungle, forest and combat phases also have to be completed.
Established by the French in 1974 in Djibouti, the FDCC became a staple expectation and accomplishment for French Soldiers. Since 2015, select service members from CJTF-HOA have been invited to participate in the rigorous course.
The nature of the course immediately intrigued two survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) specialists. Tech. Sgts. Matthew O’Brien and Roy Wollgast, assigned to the 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, volunteered to take on the challenge.
“I heard the course was pretty heinous, so I immediately wanted to participate,” said Wollgast.
The course is broken into three main phases: the French pre-assessment, the commando phase, and the combat phase. Before the official course, CJTF-HOA conducts a pre-assessment to identify the 35 most physically and mentally fit service members to compete in the FDCC.
On April 5, U.S. service members conducted a ranger physical fitness test consisting of timed push-ups and sit-ups, a rope climb, and a five-mile run.
O’Brien and Wollgast, from the Alaska Air National Guard, are used to extreme temperatures. Alaska, however, is the polar opposite of the scorching and humid temperatures in the Horn of Africa. To prepare, they needed to acclimate to the environment in Djibouti.
Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers assigned to Task Force Red Dragon (TFRD), the security forces asset for CJTF-HOA, led the U.S. participation from Camp Lemonnier.
“I was impressed with the effort that the Red Dragon folks were putting in,” said Wollgast. “I was honestly a bit intimidated wondering if I got a slot for the next portion at the French Base.”
The next phase of selection, the French pre-assessment, started April 19 at the French 5th Overseas Interarms Regiment Base (5th RIAOM), Djibouti, with an advanced water obstacle course and another timed five-mile run.
“I really enjoyed the water obstacle course because it was a team event,” said Wollgast. “Being able to coordinate different pool strategies and feeling the extra pressure of my team relying on me pushed me to do better.”
The participants split into teams of five to complete the aquatic obstacle course. Once complete, the French instructors displayed their small arms weapons systems to U.S. service members to familiarize them with their history and current equipment.
“The opportunity to train alongside other units is something that I always appreciate,” said O’Brien.
The commando phase of the course includes mountain confidence, knot tying, night obstacle courses, battle maneuver tactics, and other challenges. Due to the nature of their job, O’Brien and Wollgast have experience training in a desert environment and were able to help others during the course.
“We have a desert survival phase in our training and it was very applicable to this environment,” said O’Brien. “We were able to take care of ourselves and Soldiers around us. We made sure they drank water, ate enough calories, and stayed out of the sun as much as possible.”
The highlight of the commando phase was the mountain obstacle course, including rope swings, crawling on a high rope atop the mountain and rock climbing.
“Just get to the other side,” O’Brien said of the goal.
The final phase of the course, the combat phase, started May 5 and was a five-day culminating exercise on infantry tactics and battle movements. The days were long, with the nights spent in a foxhole performing fire watch.
“The French have been operating here for a long time,” said O’Brien. “There’s a lot that we can learn from them, especially in this austere environment.”
The combat phase focused on dismounted small unit tactics in a desert environment.
“The FDCC is valuable training,” said Wollgast. “I feel like I know a lot more about the desert and the Horn of Africa as a whole. This training taught me what resources it would take for a real-world mission in the desert.”
The service members who completed the course were pinned with a desert commando badge. Of the approximately 50 service members who completed the pre-assessment, only 25 earned the prestigious badge.
The course acts as a platform for the U.S. and French partnership in Djibouti. Members of CJTF-HOA regularly train and work alongside allies, partners and government organizations to achieve a unified effort to improve safety, security and prosperity in East Africa.