JAJI, Nigeria – Walking off the plane, the air hits you like fumes from an oven opened too close, too soon. Going south, the equator is a short bus ride. But, this team wasn’t going south.
Leaving major metropolitan infrastructure behind, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley’s perspective on future combat operations in austere conditions becomes a reality. Jaji isn’t home to the creature comforts found in Middle Eastern forward operating bases. No Burger King. No Pizza Hut. No air-conditioning or internet. No running water. However, there are plenty of buckets.
“We walk over to this big pump and get our own water to flush our toilets since water happens intermittently,” explained Capt. Aaron Harris. “It’s not always a fixed system or anything like that.”
Harris is ordinarily a forward support company commander for the 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, New York. But out here, Harris uses his logistics background to support a team of 12 U.S. Army Soldiers fulfilling a six-week advise and assist mission in a remote military compound three hours north of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
“We have bed space, plenty of places to sleep,” Harris said matter-of-factly. “The food’s great; we hired a local, a spouse of one of the Nigerian army soldiers. She cooks for us, provides us water. We have water, hot meals, beds, and mosquito nets. What more can you ask for?”
‘What more can you ask for’ was the last expression you’d expect to hear from any Soldier carrying two five-gallon buckets of cold water to a cramped stall walled off with thin vinyl. But if you want to shower, you fill your buckets. The process is simple. You pour one bucket on yourself, apply soap, and use the second bucket to rinse.
The living quarters were reminiscent of a Hollywood war film. Bunk beds, boarded-up windows, PVC-pipe camping chairs, and faded-green socks hanging on a clothesline decorated the front porch. Inside, the walls were littered with hand-drawn operations orders bordered by two-inch green tape. ToughBoxes acted as furniture. The most-frequented corner included a plastic card table. The place was covered with the sounds of soldiers conversing and arguing over endless games of spades. The scene was a far cry from the modern field training exercise complete with eyes fixed to the glow of cellphones and headphones to reduce the chances of face-to-face interaction.
The cohesion brought on by an austere living environment carried into the work. The team said they were happiest when training the Nigerian Soldiers, even when it required ample amounts of sunscreen.
“At least it’s a dry heat,” explains an optimistic U.S. Army non-commissioned officer. “It could be worse. It could be humid. The last thing we want is more sweat, mold and mildew. I’ll take hot over humid any day. Heck, I’d take this heat over the cold, any day.”
Sgt. First Class Saul Rodriguez, is the most experienced of the 12 U.S. Army Soldiers in the remote military compound manufactured to produce the country’s intrepid infantry recruits.
Even in triple digit weather and AK-47s in hand, it’s easy to forget these proned-positioned Soldiers are likely headed into imminent danger. The Nigerian Army’s 26th Infantry Battalion may be next to deploy northeast to confront the notorious and violent extremist organization, Boko Haram.
“My job is to train you as much as I can. Your job is to fight the bad guys out of your country,” Rodriguez shouted to a group of Soldiers demonstrating their best cover and concealment efforts behind’s Jaji’s bushes and trees.
“Yes. We are hard on them. We have to be. Their life depends on it,” Staff Sgt. Kevin Martin of the 10th Mountain Division explained after lecturing the 26th on the significance of maintaining noise discipline. “They might need these skills one day. They face a very real and lethal threat. We aren’t going to slow down, we are going to pack as much training in as possible.”
This life-altering responsibility to prepare Nigerian soldiers wasn’t lost on the mission’s leader, Capt. Stephen Gouthro.
Gouthro said one of the best parts of the mission was the lack of micro-management. The closest ‘flagpole’ was thousands of miles away, meaning, the closest superior officer was in the U.S. or Europe.
“What better way to demonstrate mission command,” Gouthro said. “This mission isn’t only about the tactical. Everything our team does could have diplomatic effects. Out here, the team has to be professional, mature and discipline. And we are.”
All in all, this mission was the definition of the U.S. Army’s top priority: readiness. From pack-out preparations to redeployment operations, this mission challenged junior officers and NCOs to work without built-in support from ‘big army.’ Austere conditions, local negotiations, food from the economy, far from higher headquarters, limited digital capabilities, diplomatic implications and foreign-military engagements are only a few examples of how this mission made these men more ready.
A small support team traveled to Jaji about four weeks into the mission, flying down from U.S. Army Africa’s headquarters in Italy. The travelers asked Gouthro if the team had any requests. Historically speaking, soldiers ask for candy, SIM cards or extra soap. Not this team. Gouthro’s priority remained the mission. He asked for a sizeable knife for a graduation gift to give the Nigerian company’s commander and some smokeless tobacco, commonly known as "dip" for one of his NCOs.
After four weeks without running water in an austere environment, there was only one message: “Bring a knife and some dip.”