Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Journey back to Ethiopia

 By Air Traffic Controller 1st Class (AW/SW) Dawit Melaku



I'm in the military. Whenever you hear the word military, you always think offensive. You think-war, battles and what not. But the military does other things, like what we did for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Japan and earthquake in Haiti. The military is a big, big help to countries in need.

I was originally born in Ethiopia, and my family and I were refugees. We left to Kenya and shortly after, a company sponsored us to come to America. I was six years old when my family and I moved to the South Bronx. I went to college and got my degree in business management, but after September 11, I decided I wanted to be a part of the U.S. government because they did so much for my family and me. In order to do that, I needed to have either military or police background.

So, I joined the Navy. My first command was an amphibious assault ship, after it was decommissioned, I was stationed at Fleet Area Control Surveillance Facility San Diego. There, as a 2nd class, I was a Facility-Watch Supervisor which is the highest qualification you can get, and is usually reserved for 1st Class or above. When I was up for orders, I wanted to do what was best for my career. Everyone I talked to told me to go to a carrier. I selected a carrier and it just so happened to be USS Nimitz.

I had been stationed aboard Nimitz for just over 10 months when my chain of command offered me the opportunity to go to Djibouti as an individual augmentee (IA), they said it was good for big Navy, so I volunteered. At first I did not want to go. I wanted to go and train on another ship since we were about to go into dry dock. I was not slotted to train on a ship at that time.  Since my passion is helping people, in November 2010 I left for Africa. 

 "The Navy and the military is not all about fighting, it's also about helping. I believe that we helped them a great deal. "

I was first sent to Ft. Jackson where I was taught tactical, humvee and weapons training. We also learned cultural awareness about different countries and the countries that we would be going to. 

When I got to Djibiouti, it was new to me.  I was the only first class petty offficer who was a Senior Watch Officer. I was responsible for the people going on missions and I would check up on them every hour to make sure they were OK. (On Christmas I received a surprise email from someone that I never expected to get an email from, the Air Operations Officer CDR Morgan, he said, "I know you are out there while we are here on Christmas and I know how it feels to be away from family. Thank you for standing the watch while we enjoy Christmas. Merry Christmas AC1 Melaku." I was so happy when I received that email in the middle of nowhere.)

Our Admiral received an email from a Captain saying I was really helping them out. They saw what I was doing and offered me a job with more responsibility. Even though I thought it sounded like a hard job, I said OK I'll do it no problem. I felt a sense of personal accomplishment.

Shortly after I was approached and asked if I spoke Swahili and Amharic. After a phone test, it was confirmed that I spoke the languages. I actually just learned how to speak it from playing soccer. When they had a position available in Ethiopia they asked me if I would be interested. It's where I'm from! Who wouldn't take that? I had to go up against a few Chiefs for the position and stand in front of a board. We were asked what we wanted to do, what's our plan and what's our passion for Ethiopia. I said, "I'm from there. I want to see how it feels to be among my people. I want to live the way my people lived. This is my only chance, if you give me this opportunity I will not waste your time. I will promote the interest of the United States, I will help the people, I will represent the military well and I won't let you down." The next day I was on a flight to Ethiopia. 

The only time I had been to Ethiopia since my family and I left was four years ago for my brother's wedding. It was a culture shock for me. The first 2-3 days I wanted to go back to America. I thought the Bronx is my home. I don't know this place. I was born here but I don't know anything about this place; all I know is the Bronx, all I know is New York, all I know is America. I can't stay here. But after 4-5 days I fell in love with the country. It was awesome. The people were respectful, honest, kind and professional and most of all (even though they had nothing) their belief in God was strong, it is what drove them to stay alive. I was proud to see where I came from.

When I was in Ethiopia, it was invigorating, humbling and gratifying. I went there and looking at what I saw in that country, I could have been one of those people. I was lucky. So while I was there, I gave back as much as I could to the country and to the people.

Every day was different. On the weekends I would go to different orphanages. Some were 200 km outside of the city and others were just 5 km from the city. I went to an orphanage where everyone was diagnosed with HIV. I would talk to the children and motivate them and give them a sense of hope that they still have a life to live and they can have fun while they're living it. They may live well into their late sixties, seventies or eighties. We were there to give them hope and they loved us for that -- they loved me for that, I loved them too.

My main duty there was the deputy chief at the office of security cooperation. We basically handled logistics. I met with Ethiopian military personnel and did training on international military education, different strategies of war and English training.  While I was there, we gave the people of Ethiopia seven English language labs in different cities. It was primarily military since I worked out of the U.S. Embassy and was working under U.S. Africa Command. 

We also coordinated the delivery of well over $2 million worth of engineering equipment so they could build schools and hospitals. We were able to, under the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, come up with ideas to build four Ethiopian blood centers. Just before I left, one had already been built and three more were on the way. In these blood centers they would collect the blood and they would send it to Bella hospital which is the main blood center in the main city, there they would do testing and blood transfusions. 

We helped build the first Ethiopian military museum. We contacted the archive center here for the Army, and they sent us a whole bunch of pictures. It felt good to see the photos we ordered up on display when they did the inauguration ceremony. I thought, this is where I was born. I'm doing something for this country, representing the United States. I was able to show that the United States does good things and helps out other countries. I wanted people to see that the U.S. was truly a land of opportunity where dreams do come through and I am living proof of that. I came from nothing and look where I am. I am representing the best nation in the world: the U.S.A.

"You never know what you will volunteer for,
sometimes you just have to take that chance, my chance started when I chose orders to go to the Nimitz."

I learned that not everybody in Ethiopia is hungry, and not everything you see on T.V. is always true. The people were always professional and kind to me and on top of that, which is most important to me, they were proud of me. There were a couple of times where I actually cried because they were telling me, "you're an American, but you came back to us, you have our name and our blood in you and you came back to help us. That's what we need. We need more people to come back and help us from the countries that they learned from."

I went to help a country -- a third world country that was striving to develop itself. I went back to where my roots were to show that I can actually do something with what I learned. This path was written for me by God, I crossed it and I am humbled and forever grateful for the opportunity. The Navy and the military is not all about fighting, it's also about helping. I believe that we helped them a great deal. 

You know how when people come back from deployment they have their family waiting? I've never had that before. I don't have a wife, I don't have any children so whenever I come back from deployment there isn't anybody there waiting for me. When I came back to the ship, the chain of command had a big sign that said, "Welcome back Melaku!"  This was my first one, and it was my chain of command and my division. The new Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC) Leading Chief Petty Officer, Senior Chief Hempel organized it, I was speechless.

I'm happy to do what I love which is work with great people and work with Air Traffic Control Specialists (ACs) because AC is the best rate in the Navy. The CATCC team by the direction of the Division Officer Lt j.g. Deshotel sent me a bunch of stuff to give to an orphanage, we all did our part to help. It was a good feeling to see the support of my chain of command backing me up.  Right now I can honestly say, I feel good, I did something in my life that was worthwhile and I would do it again if I had to. So, you never know what you will volunteer for, sometimes you just have to take that chance, my chance started when I chose orders to go to the Nimitz.

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