‘They’re able to see an American There Helping’

More than 217,000 Ethiopians were driven from their homes during immense flooding in November, and the U.S. military transported more than 80 metric tons of food and emergency relief supplies.

Master Chief Petty Officer Andrew Smith worked in this region before the flooding and participated in the relief effort. He has visited 38 countries during his 24 years of service in the Navy, but he finds his current assignment one of the most rewarding. Based out of Jacksonville, he is stationed in Djibouti with the Maritime Coordination Element, which covers the region of eastern Africa.

Ethiopians impressed by Smith’s caring and positive attitude walked for miles to see him when he returned for the flood relief. He spoke with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan recently about the flooding, the humanitarian effort in Ethiopia and his maritime mission.

What is your assignment? My initial assignment when I arrived in February was with the Maritime Coordination Element. I work with host nation navies throughout the Horn of Africa on their coastal defense systems so that they can monitor their own areas for fishing violations, anti-piracy and that type of thing.

I volunteered for an opening which came up at a contingency operating location in the middle of the desert of Ethiopia in Gode. I went from the relatively pristine environment of Djibouti to the desert of Ethiopia for a little over four months.

We provided support for Army civil affairs programs and humanitarian aid programs – anything from building cabinets and supplying cots to a medical facility, building entire schools, establishing a trash collection network, teaching them how to purify and make safer water, to providing pumps for crop irrigation. It’s probably one of the best tours I’ve ever done in my 24 years of service.

I recently went back to deliver flood relief supplies to Gode that were going to be distributed throughout that region. They had about 200,000 displaced people, and almost 70 deaths that occurred in that vicinity. I received a very warm welcome. People walked all over to come see me again, even though they knew I was only going to be in town overnight.

What does the Maritime Coordination Element do? We use a variety of personnel, including the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army because they work closely with city and port security. And that’s where the Marine Corps comes in as well. The Navy’s done coastal charting in various regions, letting them know safer shipping routes. We’ve done operations to train them on how to focus on specific problems. Certain areas are more prone to human trafficking, which comes into play as an anti-terrorism function.

The areas we’re most concerned with are those identified as piracy threats and those that have asked for help. This is a coalition effort. The British are involved; numerous civilian agencies are working with port security.

How do you handle piracy, extremist and criminal activity? There are known areas for piracy. We have beefed up their security and external patrols to combat that. We are training many of the coastal nations to prevent this themselves.

We put together the first-ever maritime safety conference in Madagascar that was host for 11 nations. We discussed tactics, training methods, equipment and places where we think they’re hanging out.

What was the flooding like in Ethiopia? This flooding happened in the first couple days of November of this year. The central highlands of Ethiopia is where the majority of the rain came. Throughout the desert region, most of populace is centered or gathered around banks of any water.

The Wabi Shebelle River overflowed and created immense flooding. The disaster preparedness agency of Ethiopia says 217,000 to 225,000 people were displaced.

Where are the displaced people and how are they coping? Most of them sought high ground, any place that they could. That region tends to be flat grasslands and some plateaus; and most of them migrated to plateaus to get away from the rising waters. We brought relief because they were without the regular food and water supply.

U.S. Agency for International Development was a big supplier, WORLD food program, as well as Ethiopia DPPA [disaster preparedness planning agency]. They congregated these supplies in Dire Dawa. We flew C-130s there, picked them up, forklift pallets full. We flew these supplies to Gode, dropped them off. We met with local officials, local NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. Then they worked out the distribution from there, using helicopters, boats, donkey carts. In some cases you can still travel by vehicle.

In three days, we delivered over 17,000 pounds of relief.

Evaluate your progress regarding the overall mission in HOA. We’ve conducted a lot of military-to-military training throughout the HOA, where we’re teaching their troops how to take care of themselves in specific situations. We’ve made an immense amount of progress in the maritime field and brought maritime concerns more into focus for everyone on the eastern Africa coast.

There’s a lot of unrest in Somalia. That’s probably our biggest hurdle in the area – working as much as we can to provide some stability for those people.

How are you received by the host nations? For maritime coordination, 99 percent of the people are very receptive. Their constraints are typically money and in some cases, a slight education restraint.

As far as the humanitarian portion of our mission, when I left Gode, did we make an impact, were we well-received? Yes. I employed civilians and they appeared grateful for being able to have a paycheck that wasn’t there before. Then I dropped in unexpectedly for one night, months later and they walked for kilometers to see me again. That’s when we knew we had a very positive, lasting impact. They had lost sight that I wear a uniform 24-7. Now they’re able to see an American there helping.

We try to incorporate the local townspeople into recreation activities. Several of my gate guards in Ethiopia can now throw a Frisbee and football. We invited some of the townspeople over to watch World Cup soccer in the middle of the desert in Ethiopia.

We did things such as the first annual Gode Appreciation Day. It was kind of like a hotel with tents. We invited all the employees, friends and family and children. We slaughtered a couple goats in the camp, had the ladies cook them up and fed about 75 people that day with all types of ethnic foods. And we taught kids how to play musical chairs, run three-leg races. They did a tug of war.

Anything else you wish to share? Wherever you go, children take the cake. At the employee appreciation day, everyone had a grand time teaching the children how to play musical chairs. We taught them once, then after that we had to play it constantly. It was tremendous to show them a new game.

Children are always in need. If you open your heart to the kids out there, then you’ve done something.

MyLinh Shattan can be reached at mylinh@mylinhshattan.com.

TOP 10 THINGS I LEARNED IN GODE

A good sense of humor and the right attitude help on a military deployment. In David Letterman fashion, Smith shared his top 10 lessons on living in the desert.

10. The quality of a perfume is best determined by the amount of DEET it contains.

9. Goat does not taste like chicken.

8. A scorpion will kick a camel spider’s butt 8 out of 10 times.

7. Camel is best served with a side dish of dental floss.

6. Harar beer will not win any brewery awards, ever.

5. There is no such thing as a “dry heat” when it’s over 110.

4. Bats in the bathroom is not necessarily a bad thing; no mosquitoes in the bathroom then.

3. Shaking out your boots before putting them on is not just for cowboys.

2. Local dairy products are to be avoided – always! See rule No. 1.

1. Always carry toilet paper!

Dec 10, 2006

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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