CJTF-HOA Members Volunteer Time, Effort to African Wildlife
The soldier wiped the perspiration off his face after battling spindly plants that fought back and dodging large fires, all while under the predatory gaze of lions pacing only a few yards away.
It may seem U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Mark Vaughn, Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa deputy director of civil military operations, was lost in East Africa or enduring survival training, but he was volunteering his time at the DECAN Animal Refuge in Djibouti, Djibouti, January 19. The name DECAN stands for "Découvrir et Aider la Nature," which is French for "Discover and Aid Nature."
"It's a chance to get out and get dirty," Vaughn said. "I sit in an office all day, but out here I can get out and get my hands into Africa. …You get to experience Africa the way it was meant to be, down in the dirt."
Vaughn and the other volunteers said the work is rewarding, but it comes with some hazards.
"The sun and the heat, of course, but the real nasty things out here are the thorns," Vaughn said with a laugh. "The Acacia thorns…can be the size of a tooth pick. They'll go through your combat boots, work gloves and they really go through your skin really easy."
Vaughn, deployed to Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, was part of a team that volunteered at the refuge to eradicate the overgrowing prosopis, commonly known as mesquite, an invasive tree that filches the water source for vegetation animals consume.
The team also trimmed trees and cleared brush at the refuge to accommodate a growing pride of lions, which recently had two new cubs.
"We have a good amount of people who come back on a regular basis, but we can always use more," Vaughn said. "The more people we get, the easier it is to clear (the brush) and the sooner we will be able to get the lion enclosure done."
During their off-duty time, volunteers come to the refuge to assist with the physical labor.
"I try to come here twice a month," said U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Randy Neihart, CJTF-HOA operations specialist. "I volunteer here to try to make a difference."
At the refuge volunteers have a chance to participate in an experience available to the Americans deployed to Camp Lemonnier.
"This is a great opportunity to get out (and see various) wildlife," Vaughn said. "And the people who work here are great."
Despite pulling thorns lodged deep in the soles of their boots and heaving plants into the controlled fires set by the groundskeeper, the volunteers seem drawn to the refuge and return whenever they can.
Vaughn and Neihart are always asking fellow service members to come out on the weekends to volunteer with them at the refuge. "Come out and embrace the culture—interact with the people," said Neihart. "If they get out and see what's really out there, they will see (Djibouti is) a beautiful country."