Eritrea

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Part five of a six part series.

The moment when Howard went from being “the lieutenant” to “Sir” was when his team was called upon to serve in Eritrea.

“It was in East Africa, no-one had been in Eritrea in forever…just three years earlier they had won a civil war, they had won their independence from Ethiopia…We were dealing with the Eritrean fighters, they were some hardened warriors. I’d equate them very much with the Afghans we worked with…They knew what they were doing.”

“These fuckers moved faster at night then they moved during the day,..I remember getting the team out and then realizing, I am six hours from the nearest gringo, I am out here with 200 of these cats and four Americans. We’re it. Our plan in case we got an American hurt was coming up on the SATCOM and seeing if there was a carrier group in the Red Sea; that was our exfil.”

Howard sat down with a representative from the US Embassy. The man said “You’re going to be in-country for about three weeks. Here’s what I expect of you. You’re going to be a self-licking ice-cream cone. I expect you to come in today and tell me what you’re going to do, and in three weeks I expect you to come in here and tell me that you’re done, and I’ve heard nothing else about what you guys are doing.”

What could the young Green Beret say, other than “Roger?”

Howard returned to his unit. “Yeah, you’re in command, but you’re not in charge of everything. Your team sergeants are getting things done, you’re listening to people. You’re taking their input- then you become “Sir.” They will back you up; when you make that call they will back you up.”

Howard talked a little bit about when a team becomes a team. “The real After Action Review (AAR) comes in the truck on the way back when guys say “What the fuck…” When you can pick the pieces up and execute the next day just a little bit better…that’s when you know you’ve got a team.”

He provided me with a vignette from Eritrea.

“We had a monster team…my twelve guys and four guys from 5th Group.” Originally the plan had been to split people up, but Howard was able to talk the in-country SF commander, a soldier named Binford, into his way of thinking. Much later, I learned that Howard is a master of the Jedi mind trick technique- convincing others that his plan is best, all while the hapless victim believes Howard’s plan was his from the start.

“I had three ‘Nam vets on the team, including one SF ‘Nam vet. I had police officers…they were the only ones with practical knowledge about pop-up-and-shoot-back targets…I ended up pushing out to a place called Ghatelay, which was down by the Red Sea.”

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“So these guys are in active combat in all kinds of places while we’re in there trying to teach them how to fight… I remember sitting down with some of their officers, I was a late twenty year old captain sitting down with their battalion commander, a man in his forties. I said, Sir, let’s talk about ambushes.”

The Eritrean commander replied, “You mean linear, U-shaped or L-shaped.”

Howard was surprised. He said “Oh, you’ve got this.”

The Eritrean replied through the interpreter. “You need to understand that we’re fighters. I’ve got 30 year old men inside my unit with fifteen years of combat experience. But you, you are soldiers. We need to become soldiers.”

And that is precisely what the US Army brings to the table in these types of affairs. So, some US officers got together with the Eritreans and they ran tabletop exercises of battles they had actually fought in the past, such as the fight for the causeway in Massawa.

“There were bad guys, Ethiopians, on the island, and they started sending battalions, one after another, up the causeway. They started to talk about “Did you have any supporting fires?” “No.” “Were you supported by fires from other battalions?” ”No.” This led into a discussion about the grit of combat operations, logistics and supply.

“We talked about how commanders had to write orders to coordinate with one another, while the soldiers focused on the tactical.”

“We ended up doing night battalion live fires, with no illumination.”

(A brief note from JL- very, very dangerous.)

“That’s how these cats worked.”

“I never knew that RPG’s spun. That they skipped and spun…we set up these big plywood targets, lit up with chem lights. In the morning, when you went out to look at it, you would see the perfect outline of an RPG-7 round, including the fins, where it had spun through the target. Then your next problem was we gotta go find those rounds, cause there’s goats and herdsmen all through this area.”

“We were set up in this area…and we had baboons come through…I’ve seen baboons in a zoo, I’ve never seen fifty of them moving like an infantry company, and the Eritreans just get out of their way…cause they went through the Eritrean camp and just tore it to shit.”

The Eritreans said “If you get surrounded by these things, fight well, my friend.”

“I was back at the camp, and I’ve got my battle rattle on, and I remember thinking, I’ve only got 210 rounds. That ain’t enough.” Howard laughed at the memory.

“It was a very good first mission, because it set up, “this is what you do.” Sitting in the middle of nowhere, talking through an interpreter, trying to figure out what we want to work on, but also who is he…how can we work together, and what are the things I don’t want to get into.”

“This is what I loved about my job.”

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