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Airmen from U.S., 8 African nations find bonds in classroom - and soccer

Jun. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
African Partnership Flight takes off
Staff Sgt. Mo Gadiaga, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa cultural adviser, speaks with airmen from the Mauritanian air force during African Partnership Flight in Dakar, Senegal. (Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane / Air Force)
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A day before the June 16 World Cup match between Ghana and the United States, airmen from both countries sat together in a classroom in Senegal and traded banter over the upcoming game.

More than 40 U.S. airmen had come to this west African nation to teach workshops on base defense, flight safety and mission planning, among others. They’d also gathered to build partnerships with countries they might one day call upon.

In an international sporting event, the troops easily found common ground. The morning after the U.S. won the soccer match, airmen from Ghana congratulated their American counterparts, and everyone had a good laugh, said Senior Master Sgt. Steven Gibson, a member of the North Dakota Air National Guard.

More than 100 airmen from nine countries — Togo, Benin, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso as well as the U.S., Ghana and Senegal — attended the African Partnership Flight.

The U.S. Africa Command program was the second of three planned for this year after budget cuts sidelined the event in much of 2012 and 2013. The first was held in Angola in March. A third is planned for September at a yet-to-be determined location.

For five days this month, airmen exchanged stories and instruction and took part in hands-on training in Senegal.

“A lot of the topics are based on the needs of the participating nations, but also on some of our national strategy — peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations,” said Maj. Jim Renfro, mission commander for the African Partnership Flight. “The overall purpose is to bring regional partners together to develop cooperation, talk to one another, learn from each others’ experiences. I think we learn as much or more from them than they learn from us.”

When Master Sgt. Todd Seguin of the North Dakota Air National Guard led a class on base security along with Gibson, they drew on their experiences from serving in Iraq. During a discussion in improvised explosive devices, airmen from the partnership nations told stories of losing friends from IEDs.

“They were taking a lot of notes about what we’ve experienced. We gained a lot of knowledge from what they’ve seen,” Seguin said. “We tell them we’d really like to know what you’re doing, what are you concerned with, what can we help with.”

While instructors spent their days hosting workshops, the U.S. Air Force Band traveled to schools and orphanages in the area.

U.S. airmen collected about $500 to purchase rice, dehydrated milk, candy and snacks to deliver to the orphanages, said Capt. Frank Hartnett, a plans officer for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa.

“While we’re out there doing our military interaction, the band is out there building an incredible amount of goodwill. I’ve had a chance to see some of their performances, and they are really, really connecting with the locals,” Hartnett said. “This is really building partnership capacity. You can’t email it. You can’t just become a Facebook friend. You have to take the time to travel and meet someone to discuss things you have in common. The real hope is next time there is some sort of regional emergency, there will be people in that military, in that foreign nation who remember what it was like to work with us at African Partnership Flight Senegal.”

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