CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti — Thirty-one Army National Guard Soldiers and one Air Force Airman assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa completed the arduous French Desert Commando Course Feb. 3.
Twenty-nine of the graduates were New York National Guard Soldiers deployed to the region as part of Joint Task Force Wolfhound, built around the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment. Soldiers from the New York National Guard’s 108th Infantry Regiment and 101st Cavalry Squadron are also part of the task force.
Founded in 1974 in Djibouti by the French army, the FDCC became a routine training requirement for French soldiers stationed in the country. The French Army’s 5th Overseas Combined Arms Regiment, which hosted the course, has invited U.S. personnel stationed in Djibouti to participate since 2015.
The French host the course three times a year. When the first course of 2023 was announced, the response from U.S. service members was immediate and overwhelming. More than 100 people competed, with only 35 chosen to participate.
“I thought this course would be a great challenge for myself,” said 1st Lt. Brendan Kalaf, the Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, executive officer. “The ability to be involved with our foreign partners is something that I always knew I wanted to do while being deployed here in the Horn of Africa.”
The course consisted of the French pre-assessment and the commando phase. Before the official course, CJTF-HOA conducts a pre-assessment to identify the 35 most physically and mentally fit service members to compete.
U.S. troops completed a Ranger physical fitness test consisting of push-ups, sit-ups and a timed 5-mile run, before heading to the 5th Overseas Combined Arms Regiment base for the French assessment.
After an additional fitness assessment, participants traveled to the French army’s Combat Training Center at Arta Beach, where they completed a ruck run and an intense water obstacle course before beginning the week-long commando training.
Service members were taught knot tying, mountaineering, combatives and desert survival training during the commando phase.
The commando phase’s culminating event was a rope course where participants had to navigate rope swings, rappel, mountain climb and cross multiple rope bridges while suspended high above the ground.
“The hardest part for me was getting over my fear of heights,” said Spc. Adam Fouladi, an infantryman assigned to Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment. “I really hadn’t done anything like this before, but once I actually got up there and got used to all of the obstacles, I realized I could do this and pushed forward.”
Before taking on the rope course, the troops honed their skills on a three-story tower before heading to the mountainside.
“The training prepares you for the course, but you don’t realize just how high up you’re going to be until you’re actually up there,” said Kalaf, a graduate of the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School. “The wind is howling in your ears and you’re looking down while crawling across a bouncing one-inch piece of steel high-tension wire more than 200 feet off the ground.”
Kalaf led the U.S. service members participating in the course.
“Once I was labeled the platoon leader, the French cadre told me that in order to be successful, we had to operate as a cohesive unit,” Kalaf said.
Kalaf ensured the troops worked together and pushed each other to succeed.
“I think they took that advice to heart,” Kalaf said. “Which is why they ended up hitting it out of the park.”
According to Kalaf, the French cadre said the U.S. graduates were among the most successful U.S. platoons in the course in the last nine years.
The 32 U.S. service members who completed the grueling training course earned the prestigious French Desert Commando Badge. For the French army, this is just the desert portion of the training; the full French commando training program includes a jungle, forest and combat phase.
“I wanted to do this course to better myself and make sure I’m more mission-capable,” said Fouladi. “I gained a lot of confidence during this course. If I ever have to do something like that again, I know I’ll be ready.”
The course acts as a platform for 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, according to French officials.