Dawn at Vienna Airport in Austria, it’s minus 4 degrees outside the airport walls, as I scramble out of the taxi with my luggage and rush for the warm comfort of the airport departure lounge. Herds of travellers heading back home for Christmas rush in after me. Despite the extremely cold weather, one man walks by draped in khaki shorts and cameras, perhaps going on safari in good old warm Africa.
I had been in Vienna attending a three-day Social Media conference, and was expected in Stuttgart at 8:30 a.m. for a series of meetings at AFRICOM Headquarters, one of six regional U.S. military commands, responsible for military-to-military relationships with the nations and regional organizations of Africa.
At Gate 47, a noticeably sombre atmosphere going by the look on the faces of at least 80 seemingly business executives preparing to board a scheduled flight for Stuttgart. One man sees the confusion on my face as I look back and forth from my airline ticket to the airport TV monitor. He walks over to me.
“The flight has been delayed for one hour – it’s the snow,” he says with a frown, then goes on to complain about how he’s going to be late for work. A few swear words follow. “So many flights are being cancelled everywhere – everyday for the same reason,” he laments.
After flying over what I assume were the Alps, we finally land at Stuttgart Airport. A friendly face calls out my name. It’s Nicole Dalrymple, the Public Affairs Action Officer at AFRICOM. Despite the chilly weather, she’s been waiting to pick me up. With gratitude I walk over to her. “We’re under about 20cm of snow and -5 C temps. Winter arrived a bit early, she warns as we stroll to her truck.”
“Not everyone at AFRICOM is a soldier. Civilians too work here”, she explains after I ask if she’s military. Having woken up early to catch my flight, I tell her how I’m looking forward to taking a warm shower before the meetings, but Nicole cuts my statement half way with an apologetic tone.
“I’m afraid you won’t have much time to rest, I’m driving you straight to AFRICOM. Your first meeting, with Col. Childress is in the next 10 minutes.” AFRICOM is headquartered at Kelley Barracks, located ten miles southeast of Stuttgart. It was built in 1938.
Shortly after World War II, it was renamed in honor of Staff Sergeant Jonah Kelley, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic actions occurring during the war.
Outside AFRICOM Offices, we are met by a serious looking, but as it turns out later very friendly Kenneth Fidler of the Public Affairs Office. After commenting about how cold I look and suggesting a warm cup of coffee, he briefs me on the program line-up for my three-day stay in Germany. He then ushers me into the office of a ‘tall and handsome – smartly dressed soldier’.
“HAKEEM,” with a beaming smile, he blares out my name like a true soldier, “I’m Col. Franklin Childress, the Public Affairs Office Director here, welcome to AFRICOM,” He says, while gesturing me to take a sit. I’m suddenly energised and excitement is written all over my face.
There’re two people I had been looking forward to meeting on my trip to Germany and he was top on the list. The other one is Vince Crawley the Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the Command. I had been exchanging emails with both gentlemen for months and meeting them face to face was an honor. “AFRICOM seeks to work in partnership with African Governments to offer US military support to civilian agencies,” Col. Childress says as we conclude our meeting minutes later.”
Several meetings later and two days into German, I had learnt a lot about AFRICOM. From meetings with Lt. Col. Steven Lamb, the Division Chief at the Public Affairs Office and his Social Media team, to policy inter-agency partnership meetings, I realised just how wrong I was about the role of AFRICOM vis-a-vis Africa.
These men and women, some soldiers, others civilians, wake up each day ready to work for the good of mankind. The Command is not here to ‘save’ Africa or to exploit the continent, but to seek and build strong partnerships with both Governments and civilian populations.
To quote General William E. Ward, Commander of AFRICOM, “The U.S. Africa Command works with Africans and the international community to promote the fundamental idea that establishing professional military service is an effective approach for building self-sustaining stability and fostering conditions that promote development…[W]e have worked continuously to listen and learn from our partners so that our activities and programs support the needs of the Africans to provide for their own security and stability.”
With this inspirational message, a visit to the amazing Stuttgart Christmas Markets with Mr. Crawley and a Christmas Party at Col. Childress’s house on the last day of my trip, I bid farewell,but alas…My flight is cancelled…three days later, I’m still stuck in a frozen Germany. Airports are covered in snow, so no flights out.
Planes all-over Europe are grounded. The weather confines me indoors. To make matters worse the sun sets at 4pm during winter, so darkness comes early…reminding me of that novel title “Darkness at Noon” by British novelist Arthur Koestler. Another adventure had begun…