Wisconsin Army Guard Soldiers Reflect on Africa Deployment

By Vaughn R. Larson, Department of Military AffairsJune 6, 2023

First Sgt. Ann Felhofer, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa Headquarters Support Company senior enlisted leader, stands in front of a formation during a Memorial Day ceremony at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, May 29, 2023. Felhofer is part of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade headquarters element deployed in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Phuong Au)
First Sgt. Ann Felhofer, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa Headquarters Support Company senior enlisted leader, stands in front of a formation during a Memorial Day ceremony at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, May 29, 2023. Felhofer is part of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade headquarters element deployed in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Phuong Au) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti - The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB) headquarters is approximately eight months into its deployment running the headquarters staff for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa and will soon transition responsibilities to its replacement unit.

CJTF-HOA is the U.S. Africa Command organization that conducts operations to enhance partner nation capacity, promote regional stability, dissuade conflict and protect U.S. and coalition interests.

“This small part of Africa affects the larger world — it’s amazing to see the impact that we have in international relations while here,” said Maj. Christopher Philpot, the deputy intelligence director for CJTF-HOA and former commander of the Wisconsin National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters.

The U.S. military has been at Camp Lemonnier for two decades. It is the only enduring U.S. military base on the African continent and a forward operating site. CJTF-HOA is one of more than 25 tenant commands and activities to receive logistics support at Camp Lemonnier.

Col. Eric Leckel, 157th MEB commander and chief of staff for CJTF-HOA during this deployment, said the 157th comprises 60 percent of the task force staff. He said a maneuver enhancement brigade’s mission and structure are very complementary to that of the CJTF-HOA.

“This is why the unit-based solution to this mission set allows for such success in a crucial operating space such as the Horn of Africa,” Leckel said.

A maneuver enhancement brigade protects and manages a maneuver — or combat — division’s support area so the maneuver elements can operate securely. Similarly, CJTF-HOA enables U.S. Africa Command’s mission by functioning as its support area. A maneuver enhancement brigade is well suited to help the CJTF-HOA execute missions. Its combat support capabilities — targeting, engineer support, force protection and sustainment — are integrated by CJTF-HOA to enhance operational effectiveness and maximize mission success.

Coordination and collaboration are crucial aspects of how a maneuver enhancement brigade functions and the same is true for the CJTF-HOA. Collaboration with other units and components helps synchronize efforts and ensure effective integration of operations.

“CJTF-HOA facilitates coordination between commands, subordinate units, allies, partners and other force elements,” Leckel explained, “fostering the unity of effort” between partner nations and international organizations. “They work together to establish and maintain relationships, share information, and coordinate efforts to achieve shared objectives.”

Maj. Valerie Breunig, deputy logistics director for CJTF-HOA and a member of the logistics staff with the 157th MEB, said the most valuable part of this deployment for her was the exposure to different service capabilities and connections.

“As a logistician, my knowledge of capabilities and relationships across the broader logistical community increases the resources I can leverage to improve training experiences in the Wisconsin National Guard,” she said.

Capt. Austin Houston, a communications plans and projects officer with CJTF-HOA and the incoming commander of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 357th Brigade Signal Company, said the regular interaction with foreign partners and allies was his favorite part of the deployment.

“It provides the opportunity to share knowledge of our communications craft with other communicators from around the world and learn from each other,” Houston said.

Spc. Michael Jansen, a tactical gear specialist with the CJTF-HOA and a team member with the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 950th Engineer Company, said effective communication between different sections is crucial for mission success.

“Everyone here has an important role to make us successful, and one role is not more or less important than another,” Jansen said. “Being able to communicate with other elements, seniors, peers and subordinates effectively and tactfully is what I will take away from this deployment.”

Master Sgt. Ryan Fischer, the military working dog program manager with CJTF-HOA and the incoming first sergeant for the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Battery A, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, said he has enjoyed working with and getting to know active duty military working dog teams from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Naval Special Warfare.

“Working in a joint environment has provided numerous opportunities to work with service members from other branches, as well as partner and allied forces,” Fischer said. “A shared understanding of how each other conducts business and utilizing the strengths everyone brings to the table builds a strong team from which we can pull a wide variety of experiences and specialties.”

Staff Sgt. Hannah Emerson, an intelligence analyst with CJTF-HOA who will return to the Wisconsin National Guard as a new member of the Defensive Cyberspace Operations Element, said she now has “real experience to utilize for training upcoming junior Soldiers,”

Houston noted that National Guard members bring civilian sector experience to the deployment.

“We provide that knowledge to different Defense Department entities and other agencies to enable new approaches to issues,” Houston said.

But the deployment also offers National Guard members valuable experience beyond the opportunity to perform their military occupation full time.

“This is my first time working in a staff position, and the experience has been eye-opening, to say the least,” Fischer said. “This is a joint staff at that, so there’s even an additional layer added into the experience. I hope my understanding of operational and strategic-level planning and operations will help me better explain the ‘why’ to my Soldiers and to be a better adviser to my officers with decisions they’ll be expected to make.”

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