Reflections of Travel, Partnerships, and an American Hero during Trip to Uganda

Brigadier General James Owens, Deputy Commander, Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa wrote

I MUST attend the Kitgum cafeteria dedication ceremony. Usually RDML Losey is the guy we want to attend these but this one means something to me as this project is being dedicated to the memory of CPT Benjamin Sklaver who was killed in action in Afghanistan. Ben Sklaver was one of my officers and I represented the Army at his funeral last October. While I didn’t know him personally, how he lived and the impact of his work impressed me — so I have to attend this ceremony to pay honor to his memory.

Its Monday and we still don’t have overflight clearance for Kenya . . . nothing like the last minute to try and coordinate travel! After waiting all day, finally…we get the clearance AFTER we make the decision to leave Tuesday bright and early. There is nothing like an Oh-dark-thirty departure to start the day out right . . . wheels up by 0506 and we are off to Entebbe, Uganda to meet up with U.S. Ambassador Jerry Lanier. Being able to use mil air and sleeping through the flight are big pluses to make a long day bearable.

Coming in to Entebbe is always interesting . . . lots of history now overtaken by U.N. aircraft and equipment warehouses. There never seems to be much activity at the old terminal area in spite of all the aircraft on the ground…The new terminal on the other hand is one of the nicest in East Africa! Getting off the aircraft and feeling the cooler air and seeing GREEN grass and trees is a huge plus!

We meet up with AMB Lanier and his new senior defense official — LTC Perozo — to wait for the aircraft to be refueled before the second leg of our journey.

The flight to Gulu is quick — about an hour’s flight north. Lots of forest area with small patches of farmland. Upon landing, we are met by members of nearby Ugandan People’s Defense Force unit and USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) representatives that will accompany us to the dedication. A couple of local journalists are on hand and conduct a quick interview with Ambassador Lanier. We then load up in vehicles and drive to lunch in Gulu with some of the local dignitaries that will be participating in the dedication. After a quick meal, we begin our hour and a half drive to Kitgum

The drive to Kitgum takes us through former farmland that is still in the process of being reclaimed by Ugandans who left the area to escape the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). Every so often you can still see the remains of buildings that were destroyed during the fighting…you also see many signs that the former land owners are slowly reestablishing their land ownership and beginning to move back. New construction is sparse and stacks of brick stand to mark land claims . . . old fields are being recleared and plowed which is a good sign.

When we arrive at Kitgum, there is a small army of students, parents, and dignitaries on hand to greet us…the school facility is fairly large consisting of a number of classroom buildings, dormitories for the students, an open area used to hold sporting events and gatherings, and the freshly painted cafeteria. Painted white and blue, the refurbished building is easily the center of attraction. Awnings are set up in a backwards “L” shape with chairs for the onlookers.

Since we are about 30 minutes behind schedule, the master of ceremony has us sit down and starts right into the schedule. After a local dance, performed by the students, we cut the ribbon on the facility, unveil the dedication plaque, and tour the building.

What a great facility! The main room will not only serve as an eating area, but can also be used as an auditorium. There is a food preparation area and lots of storage space for the food. A new rain catchment system has been installed as well to provide water. The MC runs a tight schedule that includes dancers from the school and numerous speeches . . . some of the more memorable quotes are:

–CPT Sklaver and his team “demystified” the US Army when they met to discuss the issues the residents of Kitgum were facing (Representative, Areal Local Council One)

–We share a common enemy in combating terrorism. The US assisted Uganda with their (UG’s) war against terrorism thru providing logistical and intelligence support (Natural Fire) (Chairman, Board of Governors)

–Although in Afghanistan, CPT Skalver was fighting for all the people of the world because terrorism is everywhere. He died for us (Ugandans). It’s important to have people who are willing to die for everyone. (Chairperson Local Council III)

–USG, USAID, NGOs, NUTI, peace corps volunteers — he’s a product of that excellent education. USG’s support to education isn’t new. It started in the 60s when the US built a girl’s school that’s still standing. Education is Uganda’s future. (Resident District Commissioner)

Finally, I am introduced and give a short speech…I thank everyone for the opportunity to participate in their ceremony and challenge them to live up to the ideals that Ben Sklaver represented. I was followed by AMB Lanier who spoke of the commitment of the U.S. Government and our partnership with the Government of Uganda. He spoke of the work that is being done to assist the Ugandans in promoting education and the importance of the work being done by USAID.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, we are invited to eat in the new facility. Unfortunately, we have to leave so that we can fly back to Entebbe before dark. As we are saying our goodbyes, I speak with a representative of Clearwater – the NGO started by Ben to provide clean water in Uganda. What a fitting tribute to Ben to be represented by his college roommate and Clearwater member!

Our trip back was mainly uneventful…just great memories of the bond between two different people.

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