Josh Thonnissen: Seabee on mission in Djibouti

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Join the Navy and see the world.

That’s how it’s working for 2003 Morenci graduate Joshua Thonnissen. He signed up for six years as a Navy Seabee (Construction Brigade) and so far he’s visited Germany, Afghanistan, Iraq and Djibouti.

josh-thonnissen As Thonnissen is finding out, it’s not just seeing the world; it’s also helping the world.

He’s a little more than a month into a six- to-eight month deployment in Djibouti—in the Horn of Africa—and he’s spending plenty of time helping out the local residents of Tadjoura, the oldest town in the country.

If asked, most people probably couldn’t find Djibouti on the map and up until a few weeks ago, Thonnissen would probably have put himself in that group. He’d heard of it, but that’s about it. That situation changed quickly.

Now he knows the country is considered an important partner in the United States’s global war on terrorism through Operation Enduring Freedom. About 1,500 U.S. Army, Marine and Navy troops are stationed in the country for counter-terrorism efforts.

For a Seabee like Thonnissen, that means helping to improve conditions for local citizens.

“Our mission is to improve their lives,” he said, “to win the hearts and minds. We want them to understand that we’re here to help them out.”

During Thonnissen’s first five weeks in the country, he’s joined in an effort to make physical improvements at dormitories housing orphans. The troops also spend time playing with kids.

“We play soccer, basketball and football,” he said. “We have a lot of interaction with the local people since we’re living right around them.”

Interaction is limited somewhat by language barriers in the formerly French territory, but that doesn’t stop the fun.

“There’s a language barrier,” Thonnissen said, “but they mostly understand what you’re talking about.”

Thonnissen describes Djibouti as a hot, dry, dusty, windy land with some vegetation but still rather desert-like.

“There’s a lot of lava rock and not a lot of flat land,” he said.

Not only are there mountains as high as 6,700 feet, Djibouti also features the lowest spot in Africa.

The country of 480,000 people is about the size of Massachusetts, but has only about 226 miles of paved road. The unemployment rate stands at 50 percent, and little land is arable.

However, its location at the mouth of the Red Sea gives the country important strategic standing, as well as offering a port for the shipment of goods in and out of the African highlands to the west. One of the world’s busiest shipping lanes lies off Djibouti’s coast. The only U.S. military base in sub-Sahara Africa is located in the country, across the bay from Tadjoura.

Thonnissen’s interaction with the local people goes beyond soccer with the kids. During their spare time, troops often swim at the beach or visit a local bar.

“We get to meet a lot of interesting people,” he said.

It was about two years ago that Thonnissen began boot camp before moving on to 18 weeks of vocational school. He’s been to many classes throughout his enlistment, although not usually while on deployment.

“I’m having fun so far,” he said about his time in Djibouti. “Time is going by fairly fast.”

Still, he admits, you start to miss your family after a while overseas.

He has no idea what might come up next—a trip back to his home base in Mississippi or further deployment around the world.

“I’ve seen quite a bit of the world so far,” he said, but he’s looking forward to exploring even more.

  - March 22, 2006

 

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