Kansas National Guard battalion commander recounts mission to Rwanda for CJTF-HOA

Lieutenant Colonel Greg Mittman wrote

Note: Lieutenant Colonel Greg Mittman is the commander of the 2nd Infantry 137 Combined Arms Battalion of the Kansas National Guard deployed to Djibouti in support of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa

I prepared for the Rwanda mission for two months reading anything I could get my hands on. Most Westerners are familiar with the 1994 Genocide, mainly from the movie Hotel Rwanda. From my research I soon learned there is a rich history here, and Rwandans do not care for the movie as, according to our driver, it made heroes out of people who left the country and did not return.

The first thing you notice about Kigali, the capital, is how clean it is. President Paul Kagame emphasizes maintaining a neat and orderly appearance. Vehicle traffic is congested and motorcycle taxis dart in and out of much larger vehicles. Rwandans themselves are very friendly, but you get the impression there is sadness and perhaps a lack of openness in their interactions with outsiders.

We lodged at a former home converted to a bed and breakfast in northeast Kigali. From there we drove an hour through town and south to Gako where the Rwandan Defense Force (RDF) Military Academy is located. The battalion we partnered with had been training for a month in preparation for a peace keeping deployment to Darfur, Sudan. I was immediately impressed with their comprehension of U.S. military doctrine. They presented an operations order briefing based on staff planning conducted the previous two weeks. I have seen U.S. organizations do much worse. If it were not for using English as a second language I am confident they would have done very well. Of course, I am not too eager to brief in Kinyarwanda.

The Africa Contingency Operations and Assistance (ACOTA) staff members contracted through the Department of State are all former U.S. military and experts in their fields. I was very impressed with the senior mentor who I later learned spent time as a high school teacher after retiring from the U.S. Army Rangers. Two RDF Academy instructors, Captains Jimmie and Peterson, probably understood Staff Processes and TOC Operations as well as most U.S. Army company level officers. To be honest, I would love to have them on my staff. As their mentors, our interactions with the RDF were generally polite and subdued. When Jimmy and Peterson interacted with the battalion staff, voices raised and tempers seemed to flare. They seemed more comfortable engaging with each other than with Westerners.

The Battalion made progress during the command post exercise. Yet, when asked to continue their security mission and also plan a cordon and search they bogged down. All key players focused completely on the cordon and search and unknowingly allowed steady-state operations to grind to a halt. During the after-action review (AAR), quantitative data (message processing time, task completion rates) told the truth; the battalion had failed to conduct simultaneous operations.

I felt sad for the staff because I truly felt they were better than the AAR indicated, but what they were doing was so new to them, I think it is safe to say they learned a valuable lesson. As I told them while presenting my unit coins to a few worthy recipients, I am confident if allowed to do the exercise again, they would show much improvement.

My recollections of Rwanda will undoubtedly include the beautiful hills covering the countryside and the multitude of people crowding nearly every road. It will include the peace baskets purchased from local artists at Kaplaki Village and the soccer team we encountered in Rhungeri. I will never forget the emotion associated with visiting the church in Nyamata where 10,000 were killed and the Genocide Memorial in Kigali honoring the 800,000 killed in 100 Spring days of 1994. I will also not soon forget my impression that soldiers of the Rwandan Defense Force are serious and smart about their profession. They are intelligent and eager to learn. Given time and continued partnership I am confident they will.

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