CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti — The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB) headquarters is approximately eight months into its deployment running the headquarters staff for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), and shortly will begin preparing to transition responsibilities to its replacement unit.
CJTF-HOA is the U.S. Africa Command organization that conducts operations to enhance partner nation capacity, promote regional stability, dissuade conflict and protect U.S. and coalition interests.
“This small part of Africa affects the larger world — it’s amazing to see the impact that we have in international relations while here,” said Maj. Christopher Philpot, the deputy intelligence director for CJTF-HOA and former commander of the Wisconsin National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters.
The United States military has had a presence at Camp Lemonnier for the past two decades. It is the only enduring U.S. military base on the African continent as well as a forward operating site. CJTF-HOA is one of more than 25 tenant commands and activities to receive logistics support at Camp Lemonnier.
Col. Eric Leckel, 157th MEB commander and chief of staff for CJTF-HOA during this deployment, said the 157th comprises 60 percent of the task force staff, and that the mission and structure of a maneuver enhancement brigade is very complementary to that of the CJTF-HOA.
“This is why the unit-based solution to this mission set allows for such success in a crucial operating space such as the Horn of Africa,” Leckel said.
A maneuver enhancement brigade is intended to protect and manage a maneuver — or combat — division’s support area so that the maneuver elements can operate securely. Similarly, CJTF-HOA enables U.S. Africa Command’s mission by functioning as its support area. A maneuver enhancement brigade is well suited to help the CJTF-HOA execute assigned missions. Its combat support capabilities — targeting, engineer support, force protection, and sustainment — are integrated by CJTF-HOA to enhance operational effectiveness and maximize mission success.
Coordination and collaboration are crucial aspects of how a maneuver enhancement brigade functions, and the same is true for the CJTF-HOA. Collaboration with other units and components helps synchronize efforts and ensure effective integration of operations.
“CJTF-HOA facilitates coordination between commands, subordinate units, allies, partners and other force elements,” Leckel explained, “fostering the unity of effort” between partner nations and international organizations. “They work together to establish and maintain relationships, share information, and coordinate efforts to achieve shared objectives.”
Maj. Valerie Breunig, deputy logistics director for CJTF-HOA and a member of the logistics staff with the 157th MEB, said the most valuable part of this deployment for her was the exposure to different service capabilities and connections.
“As a logistician, my knowledge of capabilities and relationships across the broader logistical community increases the resources I can leverage to improve training experiences in the Wisconsin National Guard,” she said. “The complex environment of CJTF-HOA challenged and built upon my abilities. Daily I utilized my leadership skills in the simultaneous management and tracking of multiple systems, multiple long-term projects, reacting to challenges and solving problems quickly and efficiently.”
Capt. Austin Houston, a communications plans and projects officer with CJTF-HOA and the incoming commander of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 357th Brigade Signal Company, said the regular interaction with foreign partners and allies has been his favorite part of the deployment.
“It provides the opportunity to share knowledge of our communications craft with other communicators from around the world, and learn from each other,” Houston said.
Spc. Michael Jansen, a tactical gear specialist with the CJTF-HOA and a team member with the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 950th Engineer Company, said that effective communications between different sections is a crucial element for mission success there.
“Everyone here has an important role to make us successful, and one role is not more or less important than another,” Jansen said. “Being able to communicate with other elements, seniors, peers and subordinates effectively and tactfully is what I will take away from this deployment.”
Master Sgt. Zachary Fischer, the military working dog program manager with CJTF-HOA and the incoming first sergeant for the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Battery A, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, said he has enjoyed working with and getting to know active duty military working dog teams from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Naval Special Warfare.
“Working in a joint environment has provided numerous opportunities to work with service members from other branches, as well as partner and allied forces,” Fischer said. “A shared understanding of how each other conducts business and utilizing the strengths everyone brings to the table builds a strong team from which we can pull a wide variety of experiences and specialties.”
Staff Sgt. Hannah Emerson, an intelligence analyst with CJTF-HOA who will return to the Wisconsin National Guard as a new member of the Defensive Cyberspace Operations Element, appreciated the real-world application of her military occupation.
“I plan on remaining in the Wisconsin National Guard for many more years to come, and now I have real experience to utilize for training upcoming junior Soldiers,” she said.
Philpot said the Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers in his section at CJTF-HOA are among the best he has ever worked with.
“The team has been working well together, and we are all learning a lot about strategic intelligence and its effect in operations in the region,” Philpot said. “This deployment has given me experiences that I wouldn’t normally get, which makes me a more rounded officer and an asset to the Wisconsin National Guard.”
Jansen was selected to represent CJTF-HOA in the Best Warrior Competition — and won.
“It was an amazing experience doing events like a three-gun stress shoot, and calling for fire, which I’ve never done before,” Jansen said. “Meeting other great people from different branches of service and task forces during the competition will be memories I won’t forget. Being able to achieve the camaraderie and motivation we had in just the couple of days of knowing each other was unbelievable.”
Houston noted that National Guard members bring civilian sector experience to the deployment that active-duty service members normally don’t encounter.
“We provide that knowledge to different Defense Department entities and other agencies to enable new approaches to issues,” Houston said.
“The skills and abilities I developed through my National Guard experiences and civilian employment before this deployment have been a benefit,” she said.
But the deployment also offers National Guard members valuable experience beyond the opportunity to perform their military occupation on a full-time basis.
“This is my first time working in a staff position, and the experience has been eye-opening to say the least,” Fischer said. “This is a joint staff at that, so there’s even an additional layer added into the experience. I hope my understanding of operational and strategic-level planning and operations will help me better explain the ‘why’ to my Soldiers, and to be a better advisor to my officers with decisions they’ll be expected to make.”
Staff Sgt. Mark Degner, a protocol noncommissioned officer with CJTF-HOA and a member of Battery B, 1s Battalion, 121s Field Artillery, said that he has gained a sense of the “big picture” on this deployment.
“As a combat Soldier, I was not prepared for an office job,” Degner said. “But I have gained a lot of experience and knowledge for this type of work — the old ‘adapt and overcome’ thing.”
Many of the Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers have prior deployment experience. Fischer deployed to Iraq in 2009 with the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, to Afghanistan in 2012 with Battery B, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, and with Battery B again to Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates in 2018.
“Not being assigned to an outstation feels almost foreign to me,” Fischer said. “Being able to work at those outstations, however, gives me the unique opportunity to see how many of the decisions made at the higher levels of leadership directly affect operations and those on the ground at the forward locations. This deployment has offered a very holistic view of why we utilize precise and structured decision-making processes, especially in combined arms operations, which has actually been very enlightening.”
Before mobilizing, Leckel said he told his Soldiers that they were history makers and world changers.
“As the world witnessed the ongoing deployment of our troops and global events, the unwavering commitment of these extraordinary men and women during deployment is unparalleled,” Leckel said. “Their selfless acts and exceptional service had the power to shape destinies, promote peace, and create a better future for all.”