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Face of Defense: Soldier Inspires Teens in Uganda

By Army Lt. Col. David Konop
Special to American Forces Press Service

KITGUM, Uganda, Oct. 15, 2009 – When Staff Sgt. John Okumu joined the Army five years ago, he never dreamed he would one day deploy to Africa, the continent he once called home.

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Ugandan teenagers gather to speak with Army Staff Sgt. John Okumu, a native Kenyan, who speaks the teens’ native language of Luo, northern Uganda, Oct. 13, 2009. Okumu is taking part in U.S. Africa Command’s annual training with east African nations, Natural Fire 10. U.S. Army photo by Lt. Col. David Konop

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Okumu, originally from Kenya, was among the first U.S. soldiers setting up operations for Natural Fire 10, a multinational exercise set to begin tomorrow in northern Uganda with more than 1,000 servicemembers from the United States and five East African


During a recent visit to Kitgum High school, Okumu, a logistics noncommissioned officer, found himself surrounded by curious teens eager to learn more about the American sergeant who speaks their language.

Okumu welcomed such an ambush, responding to a barrage of questions from the students. Within minutes, a circle of a dozen students grew into a crowd of 60 or more.

"How can I go to the United States and become a soldier like you?" one teen asked.

What began as an impromptu discussion grew into a huddle of dozens hanging onto Okumu's every word. He told them how important it is for them to do well in school and reach for their goals.

"Education in the key," he said. "Everyone has a talent. You just need to find out what yours is."

The students paid close attention and asked many questions. At one point, they broke into laughter after a student asked a question the others thought was silly. Okumu was quick to jump in, telling the students never to be afraid to learn by asking.

"There's no such thing as a stupid question, except to the question that's never asked," he said.

The conversation went on in English, which the teens learn in their classes. But they initially were drawn to Okumu when they heard him speak Luo, the language spoken in northern Uganda, which Okumu learned as a child in Kenya. He emigrated from Kenya to the United States in 2000, settling in Missouri.

Okumu is assigned to a group of 21st Theater Sustainment Command soldiers tasked with constructing a base camp in Kitgum and providing logistical support for Natural Fire 10, an exercise co-led by U.S. Army Africa, a component of U.S. Africa Command, and the East

African Community Armed Forces.

Hundreds of soldiers from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda will join U.S. troops for the 10-day exercise, which has been held in East Africa every two years for the past decade. The exercise includes training in humanitarian missions, natural disasters, convoy operations, crowd

control, weapons handling and vehicle checkpoints.

U.S. and East African troops also will provide medical, dental and engineering support to local communities. Engineer projects will be conducted at the Kitgum High School, Mucwini Primary School and Kitgum Government Hospital -- where students anxiously anticipate more interaction with Okumu and his fellow Americans.

Okumu looks forward to seeing them again soon. During their recent chat, he made sure they understood the importance of education to their future success.

"Good grades and test scores may qualify you for scholarships to the U.S.," Okumu said. "Do your best."

(Lt. Col. David Konop serves with U.S. Army Africa public affairs.)

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Related Sites:
U.S. Army Africa
U.S. Africa Command

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Staff Sgt. John Okumu, a Kenya native, speaks with teenagers in northern Uganda, where he is among the first U.S. soldiers setting up operations for Natural Fire 10, an annual multinational exercise, Oct. 13, 2009. Okumu speaks the teens’ native language, Luo. U.S. Army photo by Lt. Col. David Konop  
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