Airmen help counter African extremists

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MELBOURNE, Fla. — Men and women of the Air Force's 920th Rescue Wing rotate into and out of Djibouti, serving in the tiny East African nation, squeezed among Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
But they take pride in the large role they play as part of the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, helping counter extremist organizations and protecting American interests in the region.
"I feel that my role and responsibilities here are extremely important," said Tech Sgt. Kevin Strattan, an intelligence analyst with the wing headquartered at Patrick Air Force Base, who is serving with the 303rd Expeditionary Squadron in Africa.
The 920th Rescue Wing performs combat search-and-rescue as its primary mission, but also is responsible for civilian search-and-rescue, humanitarian relief and support of rocket launches.
Strattan, 32, said that the opportunity to work with other units from all branches of the military stands out as an important aspect of his service in the Horn of Africa.
"I have been able to interact with the Navy, Marines, and the Army on almost a daily basis as well as our allies in other countries," said Strattan, who has been in Djibouti since early January. "The knowledge, confidence and skills that I have gained here are unmatched anywhere else."
Those in the Horn of Africa said the pace is generally slower than at other locations where they have been deployed, but serving in the strategically significant region is interesting and important.
The men and women of the 303rd Expeditionary Force work with coalition forces, partnering with nations to counter extremist organizations in Africa. They do that by supporting African nations fighting the extremists. They also conduct military and civilian personnel recovery throughout East Africa.
Working out of Djibouti from Camp Lemonnier, operations are generally secretive.
They may be called on to curtail piracy in shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia, rescue allied troops fighting groups such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabab or protect an American embassy in a nearby country.
Lt. Col. Gordon Schmidt, 43, of Melbourne, Fla., is a helicopter pilot who is in the middle of a four-month rotation in Djibouti. A typical day for him means being prepared to fly out on short notice to help rescue someone in trouble.
"From the troops at Camp Lemonnier and those of our coalition partners, it is important for them to know that whatever the situation, we will always be there to assist them in their time of need," said Schmidt.
The airmen also occasionally get time to interact with people in the local community.
For Staff Sgt. Robert Ayer, a helicopter crew chief, the most memorable part of interacting with the local community was a visit to an orphanage. It was hard leaving the children, even after that one visit.
"The trip to the orphanage will leave a lasting impression on me," said Ayer, 49, who was on his first deployment.
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