Chance meeting leads to recognition for Djiboutian soldiers, closure for pilots
A Chance Meeting
October 5, 2013, was a day like most others for Staff Sergeant Luke Thompson. As a team sergeant for the 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion at Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), Thompson was responsible for leading engagement teams into local communities outside Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. On this day, the mission would take him to a nearby Djiboutian Armed Forces (FAD) base, where Thompson and his team were facilitating an English Language program.
The mission began as normal, but a Djiboutian soldier and his letter would send Thompson on a new course.
“One of the soldiers who were around the camp came up to me and handed me a letter. The first thing that stood out was of course the date, it says ‘2006, day February 17’ and then it said ‘Friday,’ which I remember it specifically being a Friday that day,” Thompson said. “It said, ‘smoke, fire, crash of two helicopters… I have been rescue pilots’, and it says, ‘one man, one girl’, which really popped out to me.”
The soldier was also a sergeant. His name was Younis Ahmed Doualeh and he had been carrying the letter for nearly five years.
“It was about how he and his fellow soldiers had responded to a helicopter crash, and it was basically asking the whereabouts of the survivors,” Thompson explained.
The crash Younis was asking about happened February 17, 2006 when two U.S. Marine Corps CH-53 helicopters from Camp Lemonnier collided off the coast of Djibouti and crashed into the Gulf of Aden. Of the 12 U.S. service members aboard the aircraft, only two survived.
Younis and three other Djiboutian soldiers heard the crash from a remote outpost, and ran almost five kilometers to assist with the rescue of the two survivors. Ever since that day in 2006, Younis had wondered about those two Americans.
The letter he carefully wrote was an attempt to find an answer. For years, Younis had carried the letter with him and whenever he ran into an American he let them read his letter. But because it was written in broken English, no one understood its message. Until the day he met Sergeant Thompson, who as it would turn out, was the one of the few people who could’ve know exactly what the letter was about. On the afternoon of February 17, 2006, Thompson, who was assigned to Camp Lemonnier, was moments away from being on one of those helicopters that crashed into the ocean.
“Originally I was actually scheduled to be on that flight … me and one of my Marine Corps corporals. We were going to do it as a training flight for two of our new Airmen,” he said. “But instead, we walked them down, set them up in the birds, got their radio checks and sent them on their way and never saw them again.”
At the time, Thompson was a radio operator and often flew aboard the CH-53s to provide communication support.
“I was a part of J6, TACON as a radio operator and we’d do satellite radio support for the CH53s and the missions they’d do out of here,” Thompson said. “And so that day, I sent two of my Airmen up with the helicopters and later on I got a call that they hadn’t heard from them.”
At about the same time the two helicopters were reported as missing, Younis and the three other Djiboutian soldiers were making their way to the coast to check for survivors.
They would find two, Capt. Susan Craig and 1st Lt. Heath Ruppert, lying injured on the beach. The pilot and co-pilot of one of the helicopters had survived the crash and made their way out of the water and onto the shore.
Four hours after the mishap, Craig and Ruppert remained on the rocky shore. They eventually noticed what appeared to be five to six men coming toward them. As they got closer, the pilots noted that they were not displaying any aggression toward them.
“A man with a radio, along with a couple of others attempted to communicate with Captain Craig and I, briefly evaluated our injuries, and offered us their water,” Ruppert said. “Although a language barrier prohibited effective communication, the tone of the speakers was calm and eased our apprehension of their intentions with us. We were able to establish names of each other and that we were Americans from Camp Lemonnier.”
What Craig and Ruppert did not realize when they swam to the shore, was the extent of their injuries.
“After the initial adrenaline shock wore off we both started to feel the effects of the trauma caused from surviving such an event,” Craig said. “My right leg had been punctured and fractured and my ACL on my left leg popped when I tried to stand in order to move closer to my co-pilot. My co-pilot was vomiting water and blood and was not in much better shape.”
When the Djiboutian soldiers attempted to move Ruppert and Craig to a location more suitable for a medical evacuation, they had to carry Craig and assist Ruppert the entire way. “Throughout the rescue, the Djiboutian soldiers were there; they were kind and compassionate. I have wondered many times over these years about the men who had rescued us.”
After meeting Younis and reading his letter, Thompson became determined to make sure the four Djiboutians received recognition for their act.
First, he and his unit began pouring over Army Regulations and noted everything that needed to be done in order to make an award recommendation for a foreign soldier. Then came the task of locating the survivors.
“Through social media I located and contacted one of the surviving pilots, a former Marine captain named Susan Craig. I explained the story to her and asked her blessing to seek recognition for the soldiers who helped her and her co-pilot that day,” Thompson said. “She was grateful for my coordination and eager to thank the soldiers who assisted her. She then put me in contact with her co-pilot that day, he is currently a Marine Corps major named Heath Ruppert. He too was grateful for the coordination and expressed an eagerness to ensure the soldiers who helped them received recognition.”
Through the Djiboutian military’s foreign affairs office, Thompson was able to track down the names of all four soldiers who had taken part in the rescue. Specific award recommendations were made and approval from the embassy and CJTF-HOA was granted.
Realizing proper recognition could not be complete without them, the command extended an invitation to the survivors and after more than eight years, Craig and Ruppert arrived in Djibouti for the first time since the crash. On the morning of March 24, 2014, the pilot and co-pilot came face-to-face with their rescuers at Camp Lemonnier.
Djiboutian army Capt. Hoch Omar Darar, Younis, Cpl. Youssouf Afgada Said, and Mohamed Abdi, standing in for his brother Sgt. Ahmed Abdillahi Djama, were all excited to see the two Americans they had wondered about for so long.
They sat down together and talked about the day of the crash and the events leading up to the reunion. In addition to the importance of having the soldiers recognized, this meeting was also a chance for Craig to find some closure.
“For me personally … the other most important part is to try to find some closure. It’s something I’ll never fully recover from, but I thought that it maybe would help to heal,” Craig said. “I’m just grateful and really thankful to be able to meet them face to face. I don’t think I would have (otherwise). I didn’t know what I was missing and I am happy to be able to do it.”
Ruppert described February 17 as the worst day of his life, but said that being able to be back in Djibouti with the soldiers has now become, and will stay, one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.
“Professionally their actions that day, their character, their trust and just their compassion, it totally exemplifies what the CJTF does here in Africa,” Ruppert said. “I am honored to have the opportunity to sit and watch these men get the recognition they deserve.”
Younis had been waiting for this day for a long time, and even on the day he met Thompson and showed him his letter, he stressed the fact that he wasn’t looking for recognition and said “This is what soldiers do for one another … we help each other.”
“I really wanted to meet those people. We are friends in the neighborhood you know. I used to write like one word a month and it took me like two years to write (the letter), Younis said. “Before I started to write the letter I tried to go to school to learn English and it was very difficult. I am very happy to meet them and obviously all the ceremony is because of Thompson.”
Honoring the Rescuers
The Djibouti Defense Minister, the U.S. Ambassador to Djibouti and many senior leaders from the Djibouti Armed Forces arrived at Camp Lemonnier to attend the Djiboutian Soldier Recognition Ceremony on the morning of March 25, 2014.
It was standing room only when the ceremony started, as hundreds of members of CJTF-HOA and Camp Lemonnier attended to show support for the Djiboutian soldiers, as well as Craig, Ruppert and Thompson.
Brig. Gen. Wayne Grigsby Jr., CJTF-HOA commanding general, made the opening remarks and said words like integrity, honor, dignity and respect are woven into the fabric of the military profession. It is this set of values, service to our nation and each other that sets the military apart.
“It has been said that these common values are perhaps not so common at all, but they are common here today among the Djiboutian Armed Forces and the men and women of Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa,” Grigsby said. “They serve as the very foundation of friendship, shared understanding and trust between our two strong and great nations.”
After opening remarks and a review of the troops, Younis, Hoch, Youssouf and Mohamed were asked to come to the front, where they received a standing ovation. Each soldier was presented with the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service.
Both the U.S. Ambassador to Djibouti Geeta Pasi and the Djibouti Defense Minister Hassan Darar Houffaneh had appreciative words to say about the ceremony, the soldiers, and the pilots.
“I wanted to express my sincere thanks especially to Major Heath Ruppert and Susan Craig who came especially from United States, a long distance, in order to thank our soldiers who helped them eight years before,” Hassan said. “I was very impressed and I wanted to tell them thank you very much … long live the cooperation between Djibouti and the United States and between the two armies. Thank you very much.”
The reunion and recognition ceremony provided a small sense of closure for the soldiers, the surviving pilots and Thompson and serve as an example that through shared values and common effort, soldiers from different nations can overcome almost any obstacle.
“I’m forever grateful, they are mine and my family’s heroes and we are very appreciative that Susan and I had the opportunity to be here to see these men,” Ruppert said.