Even in triple-digit heat and with AK-47 automatic rifles in hand, it’s easy to forget these 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 Jaji’s bushes and trees.
“Yes. We are hard on them. We have to be. Their life depends on it,” Army Staff Sgt. Kevin Martin of the 10th Mountain Division said 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, Army Capt. Stephen Gouthro.
Gouthro said one of the best parts of the mission was the lack of micromanagement. The closest “flagpole” was thousands of miles away, meaning the closest superior officer was in the United States or Europe.
Professional, Disciplined Team
“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 disciplined. And we are.”
All in all, this mission is 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 has 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 Vicenza, 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.”