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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Reservist Finds Adventure on the Road in Djibouti

Missoulian -- Army Sgt. 1st Class Roy Spain left Huson in February for the West African country of Djibouti looking for adventure.

He just didn't expect to find it while sitting in a car.

"You have to be very defensive when driving," said Spain in a telephone interview from Djibouti. "We (Americans) start driving in high school or later in life, but here people just kind of get behind the wheel, and you can tell by looking at their vehicles. It's a lot of wrecks."

What Spain, 37, didn't find much of in Djibouti is water, but that's why the Army Reserve sent him there. He drills wells for Djiboutians, who live in a country where only 20 of the 23,000 square kilometers of total land are covered by water, according to the CIA World Factbook.

"Most of it's sand and rocks," Spain said of Djibouti. "It's not a lot of green."

Djibouti is bordered by Somalia in the south, Ethiopia in the west, Eritrea in the north and the Red Sea in the east. It's slightly smaller than Massachusetts and most of the people are Muslims. The main languages spoken there are French, Arabic, Somali and Afar.

The only U.S. military base in sub-Saharan Africa is in Djibouti, which is a front-line state in the global war on terrorism, according to the Factbook.

Spain, who grew up in Superior and now lives with his wife and two children in Huson, ended up in Djibouti because he heard about an Army Reserve unit going there to drill wells last year and volunteered. It's his third deployment since joining the Army Reserve in 1990, a couple of years after finishing his commitment with the National Guard.

At home, Spain works in Missoula as a union wireman. But during his two deployments in Uzbekistan, in 2002 and 2003, he helped build and maintain a base that he only got to leave twice, he said.

That wasn't enough for Spain, so he volunteered to go to Djibouti, hoping he'd have a more adventurous experience. And after receiving training for well digging in North Dakota, he was off to Africa.

"I really wanted to get adventure, and this is it," Spain said. "This is a really good adventure. We have to go out into the countryside and I like that part. I like being able to leave the base and go see it."

There are no near-death experiences - the heat and the other drivers are the biggest dangers Spain faces - and the soldiers get along well with the Djiboutians despite the language barrier, he said. Just being out in the desert is adventure enough for him.

"You're just out in the wild," he said. "There isn't anything out there; it's just desert. You'd think there can't be anything out there, but there is. There are people out there.

"There hasn't been any real threat I've seen against us. I'm not some John Wayne character. I don't want to get involved in any of that. I'm just here to help folks."

And help them he does by providing people with water that they'd have to get out of dirty pools on the ground otherwise. The water that comes out of the wells is very salty, but the Djiboutians drink it anyway because it's the best they can find, he said.

The life expectancy for Djiboutians is 43.1 years - almost 35 years less than in the U.S. - and seeing how the Djiboutians live has been a big character-builder, Spain said.

"I can see the hardship in their faces," he said. "I know that it's a difficult life for them. One thing it has given me is I'm more grateful for what I have back in the States. We take so much for granted and we shouldn't."

Spain will be in Djibouti until February 2006 at least, since his orders say he has to spend at least a year "boots on the ground," he said. He'll get his 20-year retirement in two years and can still be deployed until then, he said. He's not sure if he'd volunteer for service again.

"If they need me, they can send me," he said. "That's part of it. You sign on the dotted line and give an oath and say, 'This is what I'll do if you need me.' "

For now, Spain talks to his family a lot, especially his wife, on the telephone and through e-mail, he said. Although he's enjoying the experience in Djibouti, he misses his family and watching his kids grow up, he said.

"That's the downside of being deployed," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting home and spending time with them. As much as I enjoy this, I enjoy my family life a lot more."

Peter Bulger is a University of Montana journalism student and an intern at the Missoulian.

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