Thursday, June 30, 2011

One Mission to Africa, Lessons for a Lifetime

By Col. Peter VanAmburgh,
Georgia Army National Guard Chief of Staff
Published in the Journal of International Peace Operations
May 1, 2011

The thought of African military engagements rarely invokes images of preparation for disaster relief or humanitarian operations. The effect that this type of operational training can have on participants, including local populations, is not widely recognized. Exercise Natural Fire 10, the largest humanitarian and disaster relief exercise conducted on African soil to date, is contributing to stronger and more robust disaster response capabilities and a better understanding of the local impact.

Natural Fire 10 involved moving National Guard and Reserve forces from the continental United States and Germany, along with representative forces from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, to several sites in Uganda. The three-week mission aimed to build partner capacity and interoperability, but went much farther than its stated goals. It left all participants with key lessons for multinational operations and a deep appreciation for one another and the Ugandan people.

Exercise Natural Fire 10

Exercise Natural Fire is an annual theater cooperation event orchestrated between the United States and the East African countries of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. It evolved from a bilateral exchange into multinational exercise designed to prepare participants for regional response to humanitarian and disaster crises. Natural Fire 10 was the largest of the Natural Fire endeavors and rose to the “graduate level” with its three mission components: (1) a Table Top Exercise among East African Countries and nongovernmental organizations in Kampala; (2) employment of a Coalition Joint Task Force headquarters in Entebbe; and (3) a tactical element (Task Force Kitgum) to conduct medical, dental and engineer activities, and train partner nation personnel in critical activities necessary to function collectively in disaster environments.

The main effort of Natural Fire 10 was conducted in the Kitgum, and where 1009 personnel from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and soldiers from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda assembled to conduct Field Training Exercises, Humanitarian Civic Assistance operations, and joint logistics support of the mission objectives. This multinational force was called Task Force Kitgum and built proven operating structures, lasting relationships and synergy among the mission force, the local nongovernmental organizations and, most importantly, the local Ugandan people.

Organizing, Relationships, Communications and Impact

The Natural Fire 10 exercise was the culmination of over a year of planning among interagency and multinational representatives. While formal arrangements were made at the macro-level, a majority of the actual participants would meet for the first time in Kitgum when the operation commenced. The environment in Kitgum required a structure characterized by innovation, unique outputs from multidisciplinary teams, the temporary arrangement of people and resources; and because of unpredictable requirements and limited command authority, influence largely came from mutual adjustment and coordination.

The Task Force faced three major organizational challenges: (1) assembling people with the right skills and knowledge; (2) exercising influence over participants without being able to rely on formal controls; and (3) balancing the administrative need for efficiency and economy with the requirement for responsiveness.

In order to address these challenges, forces established an integrated command structure to provide unity of effort. The United States provided the formal commander and coordinating staff, the deputy commander was a Lieutenant Colonel from Uganda and the remaining staff was composed of key representatives from the other five East African countries involved. Standard operating procedures and drills such as medical evacuation were developed and rehearsed in detail for potential contingencies Task Force members would potentially execute. English was chosen as the common language among the command and staff while subordinate elements of the Task Force had the challenge of working through English, Swahili and French.

There is a common lesson often learned in complex multinational operations: relationships will sustain the mission when bureaucratic structures and systems fail. Previous experience and knowledge of the psycho-social aspects of group development among the Task Force leadership ensured relationship building was a priority from the start. Careful arrangement of personnel, the physical design and flow of the headquarters facility into tabletop cells to encourage crosstalk, coupled with official and unofficial social engagements were all employed to assist in relationship and team building.

In conjunction with a relations approach to building teams, process ownership was a guiding principle to structure and direct the semi-autonomous operations undertaken by the Task Force. The sub-components were organized for functional expertise and complete integration. Each country brought medical and dental professionals, engineers, and military security personnel. All participants were arranged into multinational-functional teams for the missions. The medical and dental elements were dispatched to clinics at various locations to practice the site preparation, triage and treatment of the local population. The engineer teams focused on renovating two schools and one hospital while the security teams conducted training and actual force protection of the Task Force’s elements.

The value of establishing multinational teams cannot be overstated. After overcoming initial language and group formation issues, each team quickly matured and worked successfully in the cooperative competitive environment. This enhanced the unity of purpose across the force and mitigated the potential for country-level elements to become isolated in the mission.

Understanding the local people, issues, politics and mediums of communications are critically important to all multinational operations and particularly when conducting humanitarian and disaster assistance. Natural Fire 10 was a superb test of the ability of the participating forces to understand the local customs and laws, and to act accordingly. This was no small feat given the language, religious, cultural, political and other differences among the six countries and residents of the Kitgum region.

Communications proved decisive to educating, shaping perceptions, setting expectations and engendering the Task Fork Kitgum’s internal and external support. The primary mediums used to communicate with the local residents were meetings, radio broadcasts, individual interactions and the universal gestures of smiles and waving. A key objective of the mission was for the Ugandan government and African partners to be the “face” of Natural Fire to the local inhabitants. All first level engagements with the local Ugandans, including the large-scale triage of patients, were made with coalition members and Ugandan civilian leaders. Local radio stations offered opportunities to provide information and call-in dialogue where local Ugandans could question the Task Force leadership. These radio forums were invaluable to alleviating fears and rumors, and to providing information about scheduled events.

Results

The final results of Task Force Kitgum during Natural Fire 10 included 11,698 persons treated through the medical and dental capacity building events, three facilities (two schools and one health center) renovated, 636 soldiers from five countries trained in a variety of disaster response measures, seven radio broadcasts conducted, and a successful logistics and forward staging operation established. This all occurred with an integrated multinational tactical operations center synchronizing, resourcing and tracking the 1009 joint and East African personnel accomplishing the mission. During Natural Fire 10 there were only two injuries, no equipment losses or damages, no violations of local law and all of the units returned to their host countries safely. The lessons learned among the participants were many, including the value of employing integration as an organizing principle; the importance of relationship building and its ability to sustain the mission; the criticality of public communications to engender support among the local population; and the knowledge that performing humanitarian and disaster relief is difficult, but there is nothing more rewarding then building the capacity to help people in need.

Parting Thoughts

An event for commerce and cultural exchange between the Task Force participants and local residents was scheduled at the conclusion of Natural Fire 10. Local vendors and entertainers were permitted on the forward operating base to sell their wares and entertain the soldiers. By the end of the formal dancing exhibition an inspiring scene of friendship had emerged: the crowd was completely integrated: it appeared that every U.S. serviceperson had a Ugandan child on his or her lap, and the various camouflage patterns were mixed with the bright colors worn by the residents of Kitgum. People were singing and dancing, and then the rain came – a tremendous downpour. Unbeknownst to most, it is considered good luck among the people of Kitgum when rain occurs during dancing. The result was even more enthusiasm, wilder dancing, and louder singing, with red mud covering and splashing on everyone. It was at that moment that a local Ugandan woman dancing in the crowd, soaked with rain and covered with mud, tears of joy in her eyes, grabbed the U.S. Command Sergeant Major, hugged his face and cried, “This is the best day of my life.”

The Ugandans in the Kitgum region have endured incredible hardships over the last 15 years, including famine, civil war and unbelievable brutality at the hands of insurgents. Many of the locals who came to the Task Force encampment, like the overjoyed Ugandan woman, walked for several days for a few moments of interaction with the group of U.S. and East African partners. I think that her display of emotion summed it up for us all.

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