The Djiboutian Way taking shape

By Capt. Eric Barton, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Capt. Eric Barton from the 238th Regiment participates in morning physical exercise with Djiboutian Soldiers in Hol Hol, Djibouti, Feb. 15, 2019. Barton and Soldiers with the 238th visited Djibouti to discuss and share training methods for a new NCO academy in Hol Hol. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Tyler Bradfield)

HOL HOL, Djibouti — Djibouti, a nation I didn’t know much about. Honestly, before traveling here, I couldn’t have placed it on the map. However, I have found its significance far exceeds its relevant size and distance from the United States. With a centuries-old strategic advantage, this country, this land, is vital and many major world powers desire influence here. Long controlled by France, Djibouti is a rather young country having gained its independence in 1977.

One can experience a rugged coastline, seemingly endless deserts of volcanic rock, and baboon-inhabited mountains all in just a short day’s drive. Home to the third-lowest elevation in the world, Djibouti is nestled along the Gulf of Aden next to Ethiopia and just north of Somalia. Its people have ancient roots going back to Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and Eritrea. Here, you’ll find a people who value close friendships and who take hospitality to a level I have rarely experienced in American culture. For example, for the extent of my visit here at Hol Hol, Djibouti, the training site commander, Commandant Mohammad Kayad, has given me, a Captain, his personal quarters while he has moved to sleep in a conference room. “You are my guest. It is my pleasure to host you here in my country,” insisted Kayad while I tried in vain to convince him that I would be content in the conference room. In conversation, it is easy to get lost as the spoken language is a complicated mix of French, Arabic, Somali, and Afar; a mix that is truly unique and undoubtedly “Djiboutian.”

Relative to her American and European counterparts, Djibouti is a young, yet proud country, still realizing its own identity. As my good friend and interpreter Mohammad stated, “Djibouti is the gateway to Africa.” This fact is proven with the presence of the United States, France, Germany, Italy, and China. The country is experiencing an influx of Yemeni refugees as well as refugees from South Sudan, and migrants from the highlands of Ethiopia. These travelers are told, “If you can just make it to Djibouti, you can make a better life.” Djibouti continues to grow as the Horn of Africa’s melting pot.

I’ve been traveling here since 2017, with a team of instructors from the 238th Regional Training Institute, working with the State Partnership Program and sponsored by the African Military Education Program. With each engagement, each trip, Djibouti reveals yet another layer of its rich culture leaving us wanting more. Our mission, is to support the Djiboutian Military Forces in developing professional education practices, or as we have summed it up with our Djiboutian partners, developing “the Djiboutian way.” Much like America at forty two years old, Djibouti is proactively collecting best practices from their foreign military allies working with their country. Add a little Djiboutian flavor to the mix, and voila, you have “the Djiboutian way.”

Our efforts began in July 2017 with our first engagement in Djibouti. The country was an unknown land to us. I felt oddly like Pauley Shore in the movie “In the Army Now,” asking, “Is it hot in Africa?” After our first 30-hour trip to Djibouti, I asked 1st Sgt Anthony Kennedy what his first impression of the country was, without missing a beat, 1st Sgt Kennedy responded, “It’s like a hair dryer to the face.” Folks, it’s hot here!

We toured the country, visiting various training centers, and discussing the needs and desires of the Commanders in charge. It became abundantly clear that the common need fell to curriculum and instructor development. We returned home where 1st Sgt. Kennedy, Sgt. 1st Class Tyler Bradfield, and I began drafting a way ahead to support our Djiboutian partners in developing “the Djiboutian way.”

Three years and four engagements later, we’re still at it. We have hosted instructors and key leaders from Djibouti at Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center in August 2018 and our 238th Djiboutian Engagement Team traveled back to Hol Hol in November 2018. And now here we are in Hol Hol again, in February 2019.

“To put it simply, I was impressed. From our first time visiting Hol Hol in 2017, to our second trip six months ago, I was surprised to see the grounds at the training site to be manicured, the food quality greatly improved, and found personnel who truly wanted to learn and improve in their trade,” said Kennedy.

He attributes the renewed spirit and driving direction of the newly-developed NCO Academy at Hol Hol to its new commander, Commandant Kayad. Within five months of taking command, Commandant Kayad was able to bring electricity, internet, a new gym, and plans to build a cinema for his cadre. But that hasn’t been enough for the new commander. Hungry for success and improvement of his school house, Commandant Kayad has taken examples of course management and has drastically improved his student to instructor ratio, his course structure, quality assurance elements, and overall training site discipline. Personally, I found the full integration of males and females to be particularly interesting.

Commandant Kayad stated, “If we are called to war tomorrow, males and females would stand together, so they train here together.” For the females at Hol Hol, the standards are the same as their male counterparts; another sign of growth in this increasingly progressive nation.

“The spirit here is incredible,” noted Bradfield. “The students coming in from a long hot day at the range, calling cadence, and challenging their fellow platoons in competitive motivation shows that the students truly buy in to the dedication to excellence that their instructors have instilled in them.”

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Peel, a member of the 238th Quality Assurance team, commented, “I’m impressed with the quality of instructors here at Hol Hol and their professional growth. Specifically, how the instructors explained a task to the students, demonstrated how to execute a task, evaluated students individually, and retrained students as necessary; truly they are becoming a professional staff.”

The State Partnership Program plans to hold at least another three events between the 238th RTI and the Djiboutian military in 2019 alone. I’m excited to see the ‘Djiboutian Way’ take on a life of its own.