ENTEBBE, Uganda - Capacity building is a top priority for U.S. Army Africa, the army component of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Therefore, during a visit to Rwanda and Burundi October 19-20, 2009, Maj. Gen. William B. Garrett III and Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Bronson, the command team for U.S. Army Africa, seized the opportunity to see Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance sites in both countries.

"I was very impressed by the ACOTA programs in Rwanda and Burundi, where we are working closely with our partners to increase their capacity to support peacekeeping operations," said Garrett.

Managed and funded by the Department of State, ACOTA is an initiative designed to improve African ability to respond quickly to crises by providing selected militaries with the training and equipment required to execute humanitarian or peace support operations.

At each site, civilian facilitators work closely with U.S. military noncommissioned officers, sent to the countries as mentors, in order to provide the most up-to-date and realistic learning experience possible.

Bronson, as U.S. Army Africa's senior NCO, took the opportunity to meet with the U.S. facilitators and mentors in both countries to determine the road ahead. In the future, said Bronson, U.S. Army Africa needs to develop a process to prepare U.S. Army mentors for their role and to match up the right individuals with the skills needed.

But, Bronson said he is very impressed with what he has seen so far in both Rwanda and Burundi.

The ACOTA program is Rwanda is focused on preparing soldiers for peacekeeping operations while deployed in Darfur, Sudan. The site in Rwanda also has a computer simulation lab, which is the only simulation center for peacekeeping support operations in Africa.

"The partnership is doing great," said Col. Aloys Muganga, commandant of the Rwanda Military Academy at Gako, which hosts the ACOTA in Rwanda. "They have trained my people so well that we can now train ourselves."

Similar to Rwanda, the ACOTA program in Burundi focuses on preparing soldiers for peacekeeping operations, but in this case, to Mogadishu, Somalia.

This is the seventh iteration of ACOTA in Burundi.

The four-week program in Burundi includes individual skills, collective skills, lane evaluations, weapons familiarization and live fire ranges.

The 1st Battalion of the Burundi Land Forces took part in the first ACOTA rotation in 2007 and just recently returned from deployment to Mogadishu. Now, the Burundi Land Forces are bringing in these experienced soldiers to train the next rotations.

Sgt. Norberto Ramos, from the U.S. Army National Guard's Co. B, 165th Infantry Battalion from Puerto Rice, is in Burundi along with two other NCOs to provide mentorship during the four-week program. Ramos said he believes the ACOTA program is successful.

"This has been great," he said. "You can see the Burundi soldiers' eagerness to learn in their eyes. They are a beautiful people."

"I'm happier and more satisfied with what I'm doing here than any time before," Ramos said. "It builds me up as a leader and a person. It is a pleasure and an honor to be here."