When I wrote down Djibouti as an interested intern posting, I knew Camp Lemonnier is the only American military base in all of Africa, but I never imagined the amount of collaboration I would do on Camp.Besides my cousin’s air force stories and my father’s few navy years, my military knowledge was very little. To be honest, besides knowing one dealt with planes and the other boats, I couldn’t tell you what that meant in terms of logistics. It became apparent pretty quickly.
In the beginning days, I learned what a Combined Joint Task Force is and how it is different than camp, not to confuse rank with pay grade, marines have the toughest base camp, and captain does not mean you work on a ship.
To boil down what I can say about my time with the military is that it is incredibly structured, confusing, hierarchical, infiltrated with the fittest beings, and is college 2.0. But at the same time, I found the nicest, most patriotic, and dedicated Americans.
Structure & Hierarchy
In one of my first weeks at the Embassy, I was given a task to develop and host a presentation about the DOS and the Embassy for Camp personnel to increase mutual understanding of our functions in Djibouti. Speaking with one of the officers afterwards he asked me the most peculiar question. He asked, “How do you know the rank of everyone if you don’t show it? How do you know how to act?”
This threw me because it never occurred to me to recognize someone’s rank by how they dressed and most specifically, to react to it. But after a couple of seconds pondering, I realized the government industry has many nonverbal cues that each person searches for in their first days in a new work environment. Some wear pins; people use titles like Sir or Ma’am, or we stand when the Ambassador walks into a room.
The difference is that in military, hierarchy transcends working hours. E3s only mix with E3s. 05s only communicate with officers. I did not realize this significance until I was at dinner with an officer. A friend messaged me later asking me if I was eating dinner at a certain flag that night. When I said yes, he told me he was sitting next to me. When I asked him why he didn’t say hello, he told me, “You were eating dinner with an officer of higher rank.” I asked him how he knew, he said it was on their chest. If you see any officer, you are to salute them. The funniest thing occurs when you walk around Camp, everyone is checking out everyone’s chests. At first it seems creepy, but really it is a sign of respect.
There is a joke within the Embassy, that you can’t take me anywhere near Camp otherwise a new rule is created. It’s not that I do anything wrong, per say, it’s that I seem to be caught doing something wrong in the military’s eyes that I did not know was wrong.These are only a few of the things that have happened to me during my visits to camp:
- I was pulled over for having a car’s headlights on
- I was pulled over for having a car’s headlights off
- The problem? One must have their headlights off at the front gate, but turn them on when driving in camp
- Rejected from the Gailee because I had on a tank top
- Told to leave base when buying a beer because my T-shirt didn’t cover my full shoulder
- Solution? I wear a cardigan now.
The actions are not necessarily problematic, but more annoying than anything. I, and most Embassy personnel, continue to find out new military rules only when we seem to break them. I am glad to be the suicide missionary for US Embassy Djibouti, but it stresses the significance- military has rules. Sometimes I do not understand them, but whatever reason they are, they are keeping me, the base, the Embassy, and Americans around the world safe.
Never have I seen so many fit people in my life. Everyone is a body builder here. I run 5ks and my biggest fear is being last because some of these soldiers can sprint 5ks in 115-degree heat as if it is nothing.
Our Marine Security Guards at the compound are tested every few weeks on their ability to perform physically. I always hear their deck commander ask if they did their arms that day. Granted, I want each of them to be in the best physical fitness in case our compound is under attack. But I cannot imagine my physical fitness as a reason I am not promoted. Perhaps we all should, that might encourage me to workout more!
All 4,000 American soldiers deployed to Camp Lemonnier are not allowed to leave its two-mile radius unless required by their jobs. To keep morale high, the base has plenty of programming. YouTube stars, singers, Ping-Pong tournaments, dance parties, and drunks stealing gators entertain our soldiers.
The Embassy has a partnership with camp to allow all American Embassy personnel on camp. This is amazing because in Djibouti, it is like expat college. It has a movie theatre, a bar, 11D- where you can drink, salsa dance, karaoke, -the Nex, where I can shop for basic necessities not found in Djibouti, eat Subway and Pizza Hut, a pool, abs class, the most badass workout center, the Gailee where I can have Spanish rice, a salad bar, and free ice cream, and most importantly, two Green Beans Coffee Houses- the closest thing to a coffee shop here in Djibouti.
With that said, soldiers deployed to Camp Lemonnier become rather close after spending all of their time with each other. Inadvertently, I have made many friends here at camp and I thank them for showing me around even though I never understood the Top Gun serenade.
Deployment is incredibly stressful. Many of these men and women do not see their family for 6 months to 1 year at a time. There is nothing much to see. They often are privy to information many of us do not wish to know or see. While I was here, Camp had a suicide. I did not know s/he, but many of my friends told me it was too prevalent for them to be sad about it. PTSD and mental health strikes many deployed soldiers. According to the DOD 30 out 100,000 veterans commit suicide. Many do not seek assistance because they fear it will be seen as weak or perhaps hurt their promotion to the next rank or pay grade. My call to each of you: if you have a family member in the military, stay in touch with them, remind them they are loved, encourage them to seek help, and support PTSD advocacy projects. We ask a lot from our soldiers, we ought to return the favor.
Although my encounters with Camp reiterates my wish to never work with its bureaucracy, I now have the utmost respect and appreciation for those that serve our country. This summer I have met most patriotic, kindest, and inspiring people in America.
One of my friends has been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq twice. He is a bomb engineer. He goes out, finds bombs, and hopes to dissect them before they go off. It is a very dangerous job and he saw civilians and Americans die before his eyes.
My other friend came from a family situation where their only choice was to join the military. Once he is 25 and is able to receive the GI bill he plans to go to University and pursue his dream to become an accountant.
Reservists dedicate themselves to one weekend per month for drill and deployed a number of times in their career. These officers are lawyers, county commissioners, radio engineers, and parents who leave their families and friends to secure our overseas estates.
These men and women are heroes every day. They put their lives on the line to save us. Although Djibouti has very little crime and the likelihood it will be attacked is very little, the time, dedication, and training required is immense and I appreciate it. No one knows when and if America will be attacked, but to protect my family and friends back home, they are willing to put themselves on the line.
Special shout out to my marine security guards for being my best friends here at the Embassy, protecting me from crazy bar owners who try to kiss my nose, driving me to the beach since I don’t have a car, and always making me coffee during the day. Because of you all I feel secure. I have learned so much from each of you and wish you all the best. May you achieve whatever your heart desires. Stay safe.
Freedom is not free and I can say, I have had a glimpse of the depth of these costs.