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Normal-based Guard unit deploys to 'nexus of possible instability' on Horn of Africa

Soldiers in an auditorium
Philip Walker
About 200 soldiers from the 404th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, headquartered in Normal, at a deployment ceremony Saturday at Heartland Community College.

The Illinois National Guard held a farewell ceremony on Saturday for the Normal-based 404th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade before the unit’s deployment to the Horn of Africa.

The unit of some 200 Guardsmen will be stationed for up to 400 days at Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, the only active U.S. military base on the African continent, to provide command and control support for Operation Enduring Freedom - Horn of Africa.

The operation was established in 2002 under President George W. Bush as an extension of the U.S. war in Afghanistan with the goal of securing and stabilizing the region to promote U.S. interests.

“It’s Africa. It’s made up of 50-plus countries, so it’s a nexus of possible instability,” said Brigade Commander Col. Justin Towell. “But for the most part, it’s a great location to be.”

Camp Lemmonier is situated just southwest of the Bab el-Mendeb Strait, one of two major chokepoints that regulates the flow of maritime shipping between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. While the Suez Canal is relatively secure, the situation at the other end of the Red Sea is somewhat fraught for the U.S.

Across the 18 mile-wide strait is Yemen, where the U.S. has been backing a Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis since 2015. To the north and to the west of Djibouti are Eritrea and Ethiopia respectively, the former of which the U.S. Treasury sanctioned last November for alleged human rights abuses during the latter’s ongoing civil war. To the south of Djibouti are Somalia, where the U.S. has been involved since 1992, and Kenya, where President Biden sent a contingent of special operations troops last year to combat Salafist organization al-Shabaab.

“We’re all familiar with Somalian piracy. We’re also aware of al-Shabaab and the other terrorist cells that are there,” said Normal resident Sgt. Paul Bond. “Those are the things we’ll be managing and taking care of.”

Deploying Guardsmen like Bond have trained for the past year to support the expansive mission at hand. They deployment ceremony was held Saturday at Heartland Community College.

“You couldn’t be more proud of the 404th,” said Commander of the Illinois National Guard Major General Richard Neely. “These soldiers have trained hard. They received this mission right at a year ago, and they’ve put in a lot of extra work and effort to being trained up for it. They’re gonna go out the door and be gone for nearly a year, separated from their families. That’s a level of dedication and service that you just do not see in normal society today.”

Philip Walker is a correspondent for WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.