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TRANSCRIPT: American Forces Network Interviews U.S. AFRICOM's Senior Enlisted Leader
<i>Command Sergeant Major Mark Ripka, U.S. Africa Command&#39;s senior enlisted leader, did an extensive interview with an American Forces Network broadcaster on February 8, 2011 while in Dakar, Senegal. Ripka was accompanying General William E.
Command Sergeant Major Mark Ripka, U.S. Africa Command's senior enlisted leader, did an extensive interview with an American Forces Network broadcaster on February 8, 2011 while in Dakar, Senegal. Ripka was accompanying General William E. Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command, on a weeklong trip that included four West African countries.

During the interview Ripka spoke about his experience helping stand-up AFRICOM, his focus on relationship building, the importance of the NCO and Warrant Officer Corps, and his vision for AFRICOMMâ?s future.

"I think the vision for United States Africa Command has to be consistent with the vision of each one of our ambassadors in the countries here, consistent with our partner nations," Ripka said. "And it really is all about stability and security in Africa because Africa is becoming and will continue to become more and more connected with the world. And so I think that vision is that, from a global perspective, Africa participates and contributes to global security and stability."

The complete transcript is included below: Q: I want to ask you, to start off, Sergeant Major, what was it that brought you to AFRICOM and why do you think the mission is so important? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: Yeah, that's a great question. What brought me to AFRICOM? I guess the -- I mean, to be quite frank, it was General Ward that brought me to United States Africa Command. At the time, from 2000 to 2007, I was serving as the command sergeant major of United States Joint Forces Command. So for those -- especially since about 2001, for those six or seven years I was there, we were -- the focus, at that time, for joint training was standing up and establishing all these brand new joint taskforces that we were standing up in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world. And so when U.S. European Command was tasked to establish and help stand up United States Africa Command, the command sergeant major of U.S. European Command, Command Sergeant Major Mark Farley, came to me at United States Joint Forces Command and said, hey, Mark, would you help us establish a joint table of distribution -- a JTD -- for United States Africa Command? And so we got together and we helped build the manning structure for United States Africa Command. And then at that time, of course, General Ward was the deputy commander of U.S. European Command. And we had served previously together for one year in Hawaii when he was the commander of the 25th Infantry Division in United States Army Hawaii and I was the command sergeant major of the 25th Infantry Division in United States Army Hawaii. And so I think it was that time that we had spent together -- we got -- we built a relationship at that time. And so as I was helping Mark Farley at U.S. European Command help establish United States Africa Command, General Ward asked me at that time, would I come and be the command sergeant major, or the command senior enlisted leader, for United States Africa Command. So I guess that's how I got here, in that sense. Q: What guidance did General Ward give to you initially? What was his tasking to you as the senior enlisted leader of U.S. Africa Command? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: You know, I guess all good commanders give good guidance to the staff and they give good commander's intent -- a purpose and a method and an end state. And so for me, he gave me good guidance and he gave me some pretty wide rumble strips as I conducted engagements in Africa. At the time, he and I -- when we sat down initially and spoke, and we were just establishing the command, we wanted to establish United States Africa Command relationships in Africa. History didn't start with United States Africa Command. There were a lot of things that happened in Africa -- military activities -- long before United States Africa Command existed. And so we wanted to capitalize on those activities from U.S. European Command, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command. And then what we wanted to do was build our own relationships, as United States Africa Command, with our partner nations. And so he gave me good guidance to build relationships and then to focus my efforts, in a lot of cases, on human capacity-building. We have components today that do great operational capacity-building. We have other parts of our government that can do great institutional capacity-building, as well as our components and other parts of our own staff, but for me, it was all about building human capacity. And it was really focused at the warrant officer, non-commissioned officer -- or in the francophone countries, it would be the adjutant, adjutant-chef, adjutant- major -- so it's really focusing right there in the center. If I were to draw a pyramid and you would have the officer at the top of the pyramid and our warrant officers and non-commissioned officers in the center and our other ranks, as, here, in Africa, they're referred to -- we're the only force that really calls our folks enlisted. Everyone else called them other ranks. What we wanted to do was focus in the center, for my kind of focus. It was focus on the center, on warrant officer and non-commissioned officer development, and do it in a way that our partner nations would ask us for assistance to be able to do that -- not to come in, not to make them U.S. non-commissioned officers, but to have discussions and deliberations with partner nations to create the environment where they see, boy, the operational environment today is different than it was five, 10, 15, 20 years ago. And so for us to be successful in our operational environment, we may need to develop our people more, develop our human capacity more. And that human capacity, from my perspective, was warrant officer and non-commissioned officer development. And so that's kind of where General Ward and I saw my focus, and I've actually -- hopefully, I've stayed along that focus. About 31, 32 countries in Africa now focused strictly at -- you know, essentially focused right at warrant officer and non-commissioned officer development. And I think we've been -- I think we've been successful. I think we have. We're starting to see changes, now, in resourcing that center part of the pyramid. We're starting to see more and more international military education and training dollars or resources spent in the center of the pyramid. Because before, almost all of it was spent at the very top of the pyramid. If you wanted to professionalize the force, what they really -- the way that -- in previous years, they really focused most of their resources at the top of their pyramid, or in the officers -- or on the officers. And so today, what you see are measures of effectiveness that, today, chiefs of defense will now apply certain resources in the center of the pyramid. You know, there may be 20 or 30 percent of IMET -- or international military education and training -- dollars, or resources, and foreign-military financing dollars placed in the center of the pyramid. And when you do that, you make your officer corps a better officer corps and you provide a path for our other ranks to be able to want to be that professional warrant officer or non-commissioned officer that is so successful that's going to -- it's going to have to be successful for all of us to succeed in the future operational environment. Q: A lot of people who want to talk about professionalizing African militaries are calling the non-commissioned/warrant officers the backbone of the military; you call it the lifeblood. Why do you call it that? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: I do. In a lot of cases, especially when I'm in discussions with our partner nations -- and I learned this very early -- I don't ever use the term "professionalize" in Africa. In fact, it's kind of like, I'm going to come in and professionalize your military. I sit up here and you sit down here and we're going to pull you up to our level. Doesn't resonate real good in Africa, and so I don't use -- and there are other terms that we just don't use in Africa because we respect the Africans. And the first thing they'll tell you is, we are professional. You can help us build capacity or additional capability, but you're not going to professionalize -- you're not going to come in here and professionalize my military, you know? And so very early, we got that message. And so whatever you call it -- building capacity or whatever -- it's very important that we do it in a way that supports their needs, not in an image of U.S., but supports their needs. Now -- and I do believe that the warrant officer and non-commissioned officer -- that the center of this particular pyramid is the lifeblood of an organization, not just the backbone. The backbone is the old, kind of, talk, the old theory, the old model where he's the disciplinarian. He is the physical doer. I don't care about your brains; I only care about your physical aspects of you. And so today, the non-commissioned officers and warrant officers in the very best militaries in the world are really the lifeblood. Officers will come and go, but it is the lifeblood that flows through every bone and every organ inside of your body, and it is the lifeblood that is the -- that's the consistency in all of our organizations. And so that's the reason why I call non-commissioned officers and warrant officers -- I prefer them to be referred to as the lifeblood instead of the backbone. They're more -- we want them for their brains, as well as their physical ability. Q: What challenges have you had since you've been in Africa Command working this top priority of working with these militaries? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: Any time that you deal with human-capacity development, it takes a long time. And we must be patient. In Africa, you know, I always start off a lot of my talks with a couple of little points up front. One, in Africa, it's all about being on the ground in Africa with Africans. So that's the reason why I spend, probably, two to three weeks every month in Africa -- can't do much for Africans in the human-capacity development part of this sitting in Stuttgart. Number two, in Africa, listen, listen, listen. Talk is cheap; listening is golden. And so those two are probably the most -- what I think about every time I come down here. And so oftentimes, I have to make sure that, as excited as we are in order to deliver a product or deliver a presentation or a briefing or an output, if you would -- because we are -- the U.S. military is output-focused. But if, in fact, relationships are the most important in Africa -- and I believe that to be, and I've been told by hundreds and thousands of Africans that it is all about relationships -- then it's not about output. It's about process. And for us to be process-focused, vice output-focused, is really the antithesis of the way we think. And so we have to change the way we think. And so sometimes, the most difficult thing that it's been for me is to get folks to understand, we've got to change the way we think. We're more apt to go in and deliver, well, here's a manual. Here's a lesson. Here's a whatever. But they don't want that. They want you to sit down and help them build their lesson. And so as we build capacity and assist them in building capacity -- the capacity they're asking us to assist them to build -- we kind of -- I have a formula that I use. It's called ways times means times three times the will. And it is that formula, a combination of all three of those, that help us to either improve capability or improve the capacity of warrant officer and non-commissioned officer development. And so we must continue to emphasize that this is generational-change stuff. We're not going to be able to change -- and they don't want to change that fast. In fact, for everything that we bring, what we continue to tell them is -- and they tell us that we must apply our history, our culture, our tradition and our doctrine to all your things so they develop their way. What we present them is a way. And we are one of many militaries that come into an African country and offer our assistance in lots of different ways. And so we are but a way. So they apply all of these inputs that they get and then they will apply their history, their culture, their tradition and their doctrine, and they will come up with their way. And so for us, it's hard to get. I mean, we are very, like I said, output-focused. And so I tell a story about a bamboo tree. And to me, it's very appropriate when I talk to U.S. forces as they go in and conduct activities in Africa because what they want to be able to do is to go in and conduct an activity and then, two days later, see a change in the behavior or whatever in their partner nation that they're dealing with. And so that's not the way it is. That's not reality. And so I tell the story, just to make sure they all get it, they all understand it, about the bamboo tree. And in year one -- and this is a true story -- in year one, the planter goes out and plants the seed. And he goes out and he waters and he fertilizes that seed. And year one, nothing happens. And year two, he goes out to that same spot and he fertilizes and waters that same spot, and nothing happens. And year three, he does the same thing. Well, what's happening is, this tree, when it comes to fruition -- or this bamboo plant, when it comes to fruition, grows 70 to 90 feet in one year. And it takes five to seven years to grow the root structure under the ground that nobody can see, okay, to be able to, when that tree comes to fruition and it starts growing that one year, then it's got a huge root structure under the ground to support that growth. And so that's what I say about us engaging in Africa. We have to be satisfied, today, just like those that came before us -- it's okay to grow the root structure under the ground. You're not going to be able to see the results of your inputs right now. That's for somebody else to do. General Ward says it -- you know, we'll be 85 years old sitting by our bed watching our teeth soak in a glass, you know, and all of a sudden, we'll see something on the TV or the radio and we'll say, wow, we had a small piece in that! You know, that bamboo tree is starting to grow. So one of the most difficult things for me is just to get everybody to be patient. And you can't measure everything right away. Sometimes we all have to be patient. Q: Do you think we're too assessment-driven, and do you think that's kind of -- what you just said about the bamboo tree is a microcosm of how AFRICOM is being perceived, where a lot of skeptics say, you haven't turned the corner yet, but General Ward says, yeah, we think we've turned a corner in the perceptions of our African partners? Do you think that's -- how do you portray that, in terms of the holistic approach for Africa Command right now? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: I'll go back to what I think -- you know, there's a security-focused vision for Africa that is an African security-focused vision, which I think we can never forget. And that's what I keep going back to all of the time. So our African partners are telling us, okay, they want capable and accountable militaries. That's what they want. They want militaries that, you know, adhere to the rule of law, that respect human rights and human dignity, that understand that civilian control of the military. So they want professional, accountable, capable militaries. Number two, they want institutions that support those capable and accountable militaries. You know, they want an institution -- maybe a ministry of defense or a headquarters of a particular armed force or defense force that is capable of organizing and training and equipping and sustaining that capable force that I just talked about. Number three, they want to be able to dissuade, deter and defeat, you know, extremist kind of organizations. And the last one is, they want to be able to conduct their own and participate in their peacekeeping missions. So they want to be exporters of peacekeeping, not importers of peacekeeping. So that's their vision. That's General Ward's years and years on the continent. That's also from my engagements on the continent for the last many years. And so what we're saying is, we can help them achieve their vision. And so we can deliver operational capacity-building, we can deliver institutional capacity-building and we can deliver human capacity-building. And when we deliver those things that we say that we can assist them in helping them to achieve their vision, that's -- we have now met their requirement. We have now met their vision. And I think that's where we all have to go back and focus at. When we do that and we're not pushing our own programs and our own things -- we're doing it in support of their vision and how they see themselves -- then I think we've turned the corner. And I think we have, in a lot of cases, because we are delivering operational capacity-building. We are delivering institutional capacity-building. And clearly, we're delivering human capacity-building in Africa, too. So to me, that's what it all goes back to, is that security vision for Africa. Q: Could you describe a couple of a-ha moments -- you and I have talked about them -- where one of the chiefs of defense said about the will and that kind of thing, where the light came on and he says, Sergeant Major, I understand? Can you describe a couple of those? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: In many armed forces and defense forces in Africa, what I've been told again and again is, you know, in the early -- many of the chiefs of the defense force, the chiefs of the general staff or the chiefs of the defense staff today have told me that, Command Sergeant Major, you know, back in the '60s and early '70s, we had a very, very good warrant officer and non-commissioned officer force. It was very good. What happened, though, was in the instability that happened after that, we had to expand the force so fast and we took all of our very best NCOs and warrant officers and made them officers. And so what we had is, we had lots of officers and lots of privates, but we had no center piece of this because we had to expand the force so fast. So in their mind, they have a vision of what things used to be. And that vision isn't going back to the late '60s or early '70s. It really is about understanding the operational environment today and making their forces capable to be able to meet the requirements in today's operational environment. And so in many of these countries, I have delivered this presentation called, "A Way." I spoke a little bit about it earlier. And a way we're building or improving or enhancing warrant officer, non-commissioned officer capacity equals ways times means times three times the will. And I've been in more than one country where, after I've got done with the presentation, the chief of defense would turn and he would look at me and he would say, Sergeant Major, I will have 10 times the will because I understand how important building and improving warrant officer and non-commissioned officer capacity and capability is to being successful in today's and tomorrow's changing operational environment. Q: And what have you learned? One of the things that we talked about is, it's not a one-way street. What do you think the American military gains from our interaction with our African partners and what do you think we're learning from our partners in Africa? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: I guess first, I would say that, from my perspective, I can tell you what I learned. Our African partners, and the warrant officers and many, many of the senior NCOs that I have a chance to interact with and build relationships with are very, very worldly people. They understand the world from a different perspective than we understand it. And so for me, I listen and learn from them all the time. I learn more from -- I learn about life. I learn about family. I learn about things that we think that we've cornered the market on in our own military, and then when I hear their perspective and understand things from a different perspective, I go, geez, you know? We ought to come over here and, kind of, our whole military ought to take something from the way that they do something -- and it may be the relationship part. And that's what it's all about, in the end. It's all about relationships. And I think that's what I cherish most about my time here in United States Africa Command and assisting this great organization to kind of -- well, assisting to build the foundation of United States Africa Command. It's all the relationships. And I think that's what we learn. We learn about ourselves. We learn about family. We learn about patience. We learn perseverance. In many countries in Africa, they will get there. They have this vision. They will get there with or without us. They will get there. Now, they prefer to get there with us, but they can't wait for our bureaucracy, in some cases, you know, to kind of catch up. So patience and perseverance are really, I think, where we can learn an awful lot from our African partners. Q: Sergeant Major, you have a set of maxims or mantras, if you will. Can you give us some of the mantras and kind of give a little bit of explanation about what they mean? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: Well, clearly, these are not, you know, thought of and created by Command Sergeant Major Ripka. What I am is, I am a listener. And so what I do is, I record thoughts from people. In fact, the thoughts I record are called, what people who know more than me have said. And so -- and they've said some really great things. In fact, I carry a piece of paper around with me and before I give certain presentations, I normally go over some of these maxims. And the African partners that are in the audience really appreciate me going over some of these with our U.S. folks that are in the audience to let them understand what the environment is like here in Africa. And I haven't got it all right, that's for sure. I learn something -- every time I come to Africa, there's something I will learn anew. But these are kind of some of the points that I kind of always remember. Personal relationships are crucial. Everything is personal. And this means being on the ground in Africa among Africans. Relationships matter and you can't surge trust. Listen, listen, listen. Talk is cheap; listening is golden. It's for the long term, not short-term rotations or arbitrary timelines. Nothing happens quickly in Africa. Much will go wrong. Commitments and perseverance are essential. Understand, in Africa, that actions speak louder than words. The image of America in much of Africa is that of a 20-year-old Peace Corps volunteer who lives among the Africans, learns their language, earns little and is eager to learn. A couple of other ones that I think are important: Partnership and trust only happens if it's a true partnership. You cannot act like a mentor or a leader or get frustrated that you're not. Do not presume and do not prefer your opinion over others. Another one: History didn't start with you. Recognize and understand the contributions from those who have gone before you. And another one that I just captured recently was by Ambassador Carson, and he said it when he visited Africa Command. And I've really taken this to heart. And it says, don't judge by one snapshot. Look at the reel that came before that one or look at the thousands of pictures that came before that one snapshot that you're looking at right now. Q: Excellent. What is your long-term vision? After you go -- you talk about General Ward and 85 years old -- what do you see in the future for Africa Command and for African militaries? What would you like to see in 20 years? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: I think -- and I've heard General Ward say this time and time again -- you know, I think the vision for United States Africa Command has to be consistent with the vision of each one of our ambassadors in the countries here, consistent with our partner nations. And it really is all about stability and security in Africa because Africa is becoming and will continue to become more and more connected with the world. And so I think that vision is that, from a global perspective, Africa participates and contributes to global security and stability. Q: We hear a lot about the problems of Africa. We hear about what happens in Tunisia; we hear about Guinea; we hear about Cote D'Ivoire; we hear about Egypt; we hear about Somalia and Sudan. And we hear all of the problems in Africa. But you're on the continent. What do you see as the positive, good things that are going on in Africa, and kind of share that with us? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: I think there are lots of good things, lots of great activities going on in Africa, from the relationships that are being built from U.S. and our African-partner relationships, from the operational capacity that is being enhanced by our components, by United States Army Africa and Marine Forces Africa and Naval Forces Africa and Air Forces Africa and our Special Operations Command Africa, and of course, our Combined Joint Taskforce-Horn of Africa. So those activities, those military activities that are ongoing on the continent are lots of the good things. And how do I know they're good things? Because it is the leadership of our partner nations that come back to us and say, thank you -- thank you for helping us to achieve our security-focused vision in Africa. And so it's those things that contribute to the Africans' security-focused vision for Africa, nested into our country teams in Africa in support of our ambassadors, in support of all our foreign policy objectives. And so those things -- those are what I would say are the good things. And when you're welcome to come back -- you know, General Ward says, you can tell that you are -- you have made a difference if you're asked to come back. And we have been asked to come back. Time and again, now, we've been asked to come back and continue to assist them in developing their operational capacity, their institutional capacity and their human capacity. Q: As you're preparing to retire and as you're preparing to entire into civilian life, what would you say are the things that you really will remember and what successes do you think that you're just going to reflect on that, hey, in my three years -- the aid memoir, the website, those kind of things? What are some of those things that you can say, you know what, I've made a footprint and made a difference? What would some of those things be? COMMAND SGT. MAJ. RIPKA: Well, clearly, I think, you know, the tactical aid memoir that you spoke about, I think, is -- and that's not -- I mean, that's a United States Africa Command product -- lots of help across the command. But the tactical aid memoir is a great story. And you know, when I was down in several countries and I'd be in the middle of a jungle, and there would be a senior sergeant or a warrant officer class two pull out his infantry leader's reference card -- waterproofed infantry leader's reference card that he received from a special forces joint and combined exercise training event back in 1986 and he's pulling it out and using it today to refer to, you know, troop-leading procedures and warning orders and patrol orders. And he's using those kind of things today. And so those kind of things will stick with you. And now, today, we're seeing our own tactical aid memoirs being used throughout the continent. I think that's a great success. A tactical aid memoir -- if, in fact, our mission statement -- and our mission statement does say sustained security engagement -- it doesn't mean that we need to be in Africa every minute of every day, but when they pull out their tactical aid memoir and use the tools that are reinforced with good leadership traits and principles in the tactical aid memoir and they're using that to conduct their daily activities to make them better, to make their people better, then what we've done is, we've created that environment where we really have made a difference. And we've accomplished our mission statement, which is sustained security engagement. So tactical aid memoirs, I think, are one of the ways. Number two is, we have a professional reading program. I think I'm very proud of that professional reading program. Every two months, we send professional readings down to the continent to be able to keep the relationships going -- relationships, relationships, relationships. We'll pick up the phone -- and I have forces sergeants major and defense sergeants major in Africa that will pick up the phone and will talk to one another. They'll call me or I'll call them. They'll e-mail me or I'll e-mail them. We're in communication with one another pretty consistently. The other thing I think was probably one of the best things that happened is a recognition that warrant officers contribute, in a greater way, to the country's stability and security. And that really came to fruition last year as the African Center for Strategic Studies hosted the first joint warrant officers symposium back in Washington, D.C. And so that first time where warrant officers, now, are attending ACSS events and becoming a part of the ACSS alumni in Africa because they've attended those events -- the level of discussion of warrant officers and the adjutants -- adjutant-chef, adjutant-major -- that were participants in that first joint warrant officer symposium was just incredible. And so that's another real success, I think, that we'll be able to take, you know -- it will last for a long, long time. And it's just the recognition, you know, where the warrant officers, today, when I run into -- when I meet warrant officers throughout the continent, they say, thank you, United States Africa Command. Thank you for bringing warrant officer and non-commissioned officer development focus to Africa so that now, we truly feel like we're a part of our overall force and we can make a difference in our force. (END)