MANKATO — When Joshua Truman was first deployed overseas as a young Marine for Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield, Reed Ross hadn’t been born yet.
Nearly three decades later, the two Mankato residents will be shipping out together, along with more than 700 other soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard’s Mankato-based 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment who are preparing to deploy to the Horn of Africa.
Despite their differences in age and experience, Staff Sgt. Truman, 47, and 2nd Lt. Ross, 26, had some common reactions to the yearlong assignment. Both had barely heard of Djibouti, the tiny country that’s home to the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa.
“Before they told me where I was going, the name could have been in front of me and I would have asked, ‘Is that a town?’” Ross said.
It would have been a correct guess. The city of Djibouti, where Camp Lemonnier is located, has well over half of the country of Djibouti’s population of about 1 million people.
“I knew it was in Africa and that was it,” said Truman, who has since spent some time learning about the most likely spot the battalion will be landing. “I have done some research, yes sir.”
The country is small — about the size of New Jersey — and it offers torrid temperatures throughout the year, along with moisture-sodden air coming off the Gulf of Aden. The average high temperature is 107 degrees in July with an average low of 92 and heat indexes substantially higher.
“Google told me it’s the hottest inhabited country in the world,” Ross said.
Truman has heard that physical training at Camp Lemonnier is done very early, as in 4 a.m., or is delayed until midnight.
“From what I understand, it will be hot and humid almost all of the time,” Truman said.
The U.S. military isn’t leasing the former French military base for its climatic charm but for its strategic location. East of Ethiopia and north of Somalia, Djibouti sits near the strait of Bab al-Mandeb (Arabic for “Gate of Tears”). The narrow band of water carries every ship using the Suez Canal to travel from the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
War-torn Yemen and the wider Middle East are just 16 miles across the water from Djibouti.
If Camp Leonnier and Djibouti sound familiar to Mankatoans, it might be because another Mankato-based military unit is already deployed there. The Army Reserve’s 492nd Engineer Company is scheduled to return this summer.
Both deployments are part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the now-19-year-old attempt to quell terrorism launched in response to the 9/11 attacks.
“Our battalion will serve as part of a task force to improve security posture at U.S. installations and forward operating bases in the AFRICOM region, while maintaining a rapidly deployable force prepared to respond to crisis,” said the battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Charles Rankin in a written statement.
Truman said his job will be overseeing a group of soldiers who track the entire battalion’s activity, creating a board showing where each unit is, what they’re doing now and what they’re scheduled to be doing next, so the commanding officer has a complete view of the entire picture at any moment in time.
Ross will be a platoon leader over a group of about 20 soldiers based in Austin.
“Basically, we’re in charge of moving supplies and troops,” Ross said.
Ross, who graduated from Minnesota State University last summer with a degree in finance, gained officer status through the ROTC program.
“I’ve basically been doing military full time since I graduated,” said Ross, who has decided he wants to make a career of it and sees the deployment as a chance to demonstrate the leadership skills he’s learned. “... This is really my first opportunity with the organization.”
Truman’s first opportunity came surprisingly fast after he enlisted in the Marines in 1991.
“I was 17, going on 18. It was my first assignment in the Marine Corps,” he said, recalling arriving at Camp Lejeune, moving his stuff into his room and walking to a common area that had the only television. “I saw we were bombing Iraq, and I thought, ‘This is really real.’ And the next thing I knew I was on a ship heading over. I grew up pretty quick.”
Truman served as a radio operator with an artillery battery on that deployment and spent four years as an active-duty Marine followed by two years in the Marine Corps Reserve in Minnesota. After about a 10-year break from the military, he joined the National Guard and later found out about the full-time Active Duty Guard, which he describes as “active duty pay and benefits and go home every night.”
He signed up 12 years ago while living in Eagan, working first as a recruiter. He’s been in Mankato for two years, serving with the Headquarters Company of the battalion.
Truman won’t be going home every night — or any night — for the next year. He and the other 700 soldiers reported to Camp Ripley on Monday for additional training and will depart for Fort Bliss, Texas, at the end of June. In light of their impending deployment, the battalion’s soldiers were not included in the full mobilization of the Minnesota National Guard to the Twin Cities to assist law enforcement in containing looting and property damage following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unit won’t have the traditional deployment ceremony and, instead of one final chance to see family and friends after their training is complete, will go straight from Fort Bliss to Africa.
Truman, who has two adult children, said the loss of the ceremony and those final goodbyes at the end of June will be harder for soldiers with spouses and younger children.
“My heart goes out to guys with families and to their families,” he said, adding that he understands the medical necessity of keeping a large group of soldiers — who inevitably can’t avoid close contact while doing their training — away from their loved ones.
Truman said he never wondered once why he ended up being sent twice to a hot desert locale halfway around the world.
“I raised my right hand and swore an oath and said if you call on me, I’ll go do my job,” he answered. “They called on me, so I’ll go do my job.”
Ross, a former bouncer at Mankato’s Rounders Bar, has felt a range of emotions, including sadness about being away from his parents and younger brother, who live in Faribault. But he’s a guy who, before transferring to MSU, went from high school to West Texas A&M outside of Amarillo — a place physically and culturally very different than southern Minnesota.
“I went down there with no friends and not knowing anybody, basically,” he said. “... It was basically red clay dirt — hot dirt.”
A competitive bowler in high school and at MSU, he’s traveled to tournaments all over the country. Overseas travel seems like the obvious next step for him, and the hot dirt in East Africa will be different than the hot dirt of west Texas.
“It was a very dry heat (in Amarillo), which is different than what I’ll see in the next year,” Ross said.
Neither Truman or Ross are expecting any off-base leave during their deployment for sightseeing.
“The safe bet is I’ll be working from the moment I get there until the moment I leave,” Ross said.
And both are confident about how they and their fellow soldiers will perform.
“I have 100% faith that we’re going to go over there and do the job to the best of our ability and succeed,” Ross said.
“A deployment is where a good soldier becomes a great one,” Truman said. “And I really believe we’re fully capable of knocking this mission out of the park.”
While the battalion is headquartered in Mankato, it has units in towns ranging from West St. Paul to Winona and soldiers from dozens of cities across Minnesota and neighboring states. And those soldiers aren’t the only ones scheduled to deploy. The 34th Armored Brigade Combat Team out of St. James is set to ship out in January, including Specialist Ren Ross of Faribault — Reed Ross’ little brother.