DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti — For nearly 50 years, French soldiers stationed in Djibouti have made their way to the Arta Mountains for the grueling, five-day French Desert Commando Course to test their physical, emotional and mental limits. This year, 40 U.S. service members signed up for the challenge, including U.S. Army Sgt. Liliana Munday.
Growing up, Munday, a Soldier with the 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, South Carolina National Guard, gravitated to outdoor physical activities. She was immediately interested in the French Desert Commando Course but was concerned about the physical demands.
“I didn’t think I was ready for it,” she said. “But Staff Sgt. (Samuel) Perez kept pushing me to try out because he saw that I wanted to do it and he had faith in me that I could do it.”
In the pre-assessment phase of the course, service members meet the basic physical requirements and train to earn a spot in the commando phase. In the second phase, they head out to the field for night obstacle, rope and swimming courses and combative and desert survival skills.
Munday’s training regimen began in September and included rucks and runs around the installation before dawn, weightlifting and dynamic, high-intensity exercises nearly every day. At the peak of her training, she fit in three workouts each day while balancing her regular work schedule.
After three months of training, Munday remembers the nerves she felt on the drive out to Arta Mountains where her hard work was put to the test immediately.
“... I was so scared,” she said. “On the way out there I kept thinking, 'Am I ready? Am I gonna do this? These guys are gonna smoke me, I’m just gonna be out here stranded and be sent home on Day 1.’”
Day 1 consisted of a 5-kilometer ruck run with a full kit, followed by a fitness test and rope climbs.
“I was nervous because rope climbs are very hard for me and in training I could only do one,” she recalled.
Her training partner, Perez, was there to support and encourage her as she steadily made her way to the top.
“I could see she was nervous because we saw the other competitors struggling with this climb,” Perez said. “I was there telling her she could do it; I knew she could. She got up there and when she came back down she had a big smile beaming from her face she was so excited and she ran over and gave me a big hug.”
With the first big hurdle behind her, Munday moved forward in the course with a newfound confidence.
“For some reason, after completing that first day I was good. I started to feel like I could do this thing and I proved to my squad that I was here to work and I deserved to be here,” she said.
Each day and night Munday and her squad faced a new obstacle. She said the mountain course was the most difficult.
Participants 200 meters above the ground were required to jump across five platforms spaced several meters apart, jump and grab onto a steel pole and slide down to the ground.
“When you’re doing that mountain obstacle course you don’t realize how far each platform is from one another and there are points when you’re not clipped in,” she explained. “I thought, if I missed even a little bit, I’m going down.”
On Day 3, after pushing herself through numerous challenges and rucking nonstop from one training location to another, she thought she had reached her breaking point and seriously considered quitting.
“Your joints just start to scream. It’s painful,” she confessed. “I kept thinking, ’I cannot take this pain anymore. I’m almost done but I cannot do it anymore.’”
Through the dirt, mud, sweat and pain, Munday’s spirit and drive helped her push through. That spirit and drive, she said, comes from two of the strongest people she knows.
“My mom and my grandma — they’re such strong women and they never let me quit when I was younger. They have strong personalities and it’s within me,” she said. “It was very nice to tell them that I did this. They were like, ‘No way, that’s awesome!’”
At graduation, she received the French Desert Commando pin. The black and gold pin features a scorpion resting on the outline of the country of Djibouti. Along the rim are the words ”Aguerrissement Zone Desertique,” which translate to "Desert Zone Hardening.”
“I’m now able to look back and say, I did that. We did that,” she said with a smile. “Completing something and not giving up even though you may want to … it sticks with you forever. I use this as fuel to my fire when I feel like I can’t do something. I think to myself, ‘You can, because you have already.’”
Beyond the support she received from her family and teammates, Munday’s success is a testament to the adage, ”Preparation is the key to success.” It’s a message she’s shared with her fellow Soldiers since completing the course.
“Someone I work with said he wanted to do the FDCC but he didn’t think he was ready,” she said. “I said, ‘Sir, you’re never going to be ready.’ I didn’t think I was ready. But I got ready. So if you truly think or know that you want to do something no matter the current status that you’re in, if you want to pursue it you’re just gonna have to train and do what it takes to get to that point. There is no other way.”