MCAT Reunites, Forges Partnerships in Comoros
It wasn't that long ago that four members of Maritime Civil Affairs Team 215 didn't know what their next career in the military was going to be, and if they would have the opportunity to work together again. The four Navy Reservists were members of Inshore Boat Unit 24 and had just learned their unit was being decommissioned.
As is often the case, when one door shuts, another door opens. Senior Chief Petty Officer Nick Dimatteo learned of an opportunity to start an MCAT detachment at Ft. Dix, N.J. The detachment's parent command, Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training located at Little Creek, Virginia, told Dimatteo they would commission the detachment if he could find 14 other members of his old unit willing to cross train into the Civil Affairs career field.
He did and the detachment was commissioned in 2007. Dimatteo was joined on his five-member team by Lieutenant Commander John Marciano, the officer in charge of MCAT 215. Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Spitz joined the unit in 2004, while Dimatteo and Petty Officer 1st Class William Bobzin have served together since 1999.
After months of training, the long-time friends learned they would be deploying. Unfortunately, a fifth member of their team couldn't deploy, so an active duty corpsman, Petty Officer 1st Class Brad Rollo, joined in January 2010.
In May, the team deployed to Comoros in support of Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. Based out of Moroni, the Comorian capital located on the island of Grande Comore, the team conducts a variety of activities to support CJTF-HOA objectives. On any given day, they will meet with a small village mayor, or even host the vice-president of the country at their house for dinner, which they did recently.
Marciano says having a team that has worked together for such a long time is a huge benefit.
"We know each other's traits; we're like a family," Marciano said. "It works to our advantage to be as close as we are as we work with our partner nation. I have a great deal of trust in my team."
The team has started the process for several school renovation projects. In most villages, the schools are extremely rustic and don't have running water or electricity. The renovation projects have a major impact on the local villages at a minimal cost to the United States by repairing concrete floors, adding windows and doors and fixing leaking tin roofs.
Adam Muadi, the headmaster of the school in the village of Mdjoyzei, says the renovations help bring children to school.
"It is hard to convince children to come to school due to the condition of the classrooms," Mr. Muadi said. "The renovations will encourage attendance and provide an improved environment for learning."
In addition to construction projects, the team has been instrumental in providing initial training for the Comorian military on a new patrol boat the government recently received from the U.S.
"We have been able to help the Comorian government stand up a Coast Guard," Marciano said. "They started with almost no knowledge of small boat operations and we have been able to teach them basic seamanship, maintenance, navigation and mission planning, which builds their security capacity. The Comorian Coast Guard Sailors take pride in their new boat and are eager to show off what they've learned."
The team's first civil affairs deployment hasn't been without its challenges.
"The biggest challenge is understanding our Comorian partners," Marciano said. "They are very interested and enthusiastic about working with us, but the cultural issues and Comorian government politics can sometimes hinder progress."
Dimatteo says that even with the challenges, the work the team does is helping to forge a strong partnership with an African-Muslim country. "We are building the image of the U.S. in the eyes of the local population."
The work is paying off according to Ahmed Fatoumia, the headmistress of a new school built by the U.S. in the village of Nioumamilima.
"We are grateful for the school and the Americans who come around," she said. "It has positively changed our image of the United States."