SEA LEGS NOT REQUIRED
By ANDREW MCGINN
When Don Harrington first learned he would be deployed to Africa, he naturally figured it might have something to do with keeping Somalia’s infamous pirates in line.
After all, why else would the military need a submariner in Africa?
In active duty, the Jefferson native was an officer aboard the USS Greeneville, one of the Navy’s Los Angeles-class nuclear attack subs.
Now a reservist, Harrington, 34, had just settled into a new civilian job at the famed Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland — working on ways to make the U.S. Navy’s fleet of ultra-lethal submarines all the more user-friendly — when the orders to Djibouti came down.
Djibouti is a small country in East Africa at the intersection of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea that looms large in U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia.
But midway through his year-long deployment, Lt. Cmdr. Harrington has seen little more than sand.
“Lots of dirt,” he said recently during a visit home to Jefferson to see family, including his wife and two small kids making their temporary home here.
Harrington’s deployment is sort of like when Aquaman gets called on to help the rest of the Justice League with some kind of inland threat.
At first blush, you might think, “What good is a guy on land who talks to fish?”
But in reality, when you’ve been entrusted enough to drive a $1.5 billion boat through the ocean — not to mention a boat with its own nuclear reactor — and you carry a top-secret clearance to boot, it turns out you have much to offer the world’s landlubbers.
Of course, it was maybe easier to talk to fish.
“I had to learn to speak Army, Marines and Air Force,” explained Harrington, a 2001 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School. “There are all sorts of new acronyms.”
For many Americans, the fact that the U.S. military has a growing presence in Africa is still the real surprise.
An ambush in October by Islamist militants that killed four Special Forces soldiers in the West African nation of Niger was confirmation that, if nothing else, America is finally making social studies teachers great again.
This, after you finally just learned where Qatar and Yemen are on the map.
Africa is home to its share of bad hombres.
“That’s al-Shabaab territory,” Harrington said of his part of East Africa.
Al-Shabaab is the region’s al-Qaida affiliate. To the west, in Mali, is Al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which the French have been fighting.
Nigeria is home to Boko Haram, and Libya has ISIS.
And for good measure, Joseph Kony is still at large for crimes against humanity as the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which originated in Uganda and is notorious for abducting more than 20,000 children. (Back in April, a years-long U.S. mission to capture or kill Kony ended quietly without luck.)
Throw in the fact that Africa has a growing entrepreneur class and that China and Russia are also making strategic inroads there and it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be able to point to Eritrea on a map with ease.
At Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, Harrington is an operations staff officer in the 24-7 command center.
The base — with about 4,000 U.S. and allied personnel — was established in the years following Sept. 11, 2001, to serve as the primary base of operations in the Horn of Africa for the decade-old U.S. Africa Command.
It still has the feel of something slightly less than permanent.
Harrington’s home away from home is actually a shipping container.
“It’s like a dorm room, basically,” he said.
Harrington’s role is to help coordinate the rescue or recovery of Americans in East Africa if needed, and to respond to any U.S. facility’s request for increased security (a reaction to the attacks in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya).
Like most military officers fighting the often-clandestine Global War on Terror, Harrington finds it best to err on the side of caution when talking.
“We’re definitely doing good,” he said. “I think we’re doing good.”
It’s frequently the kind of war in which an operation might be months old before CNN finally gets wind of it.
The fact is, though, the War on Terror has gone on for so long that today’s high schoolers have never known a time without war.
It may even take a moment or two to figure out that the yellow ribbons wrapped around the trees at the South Wilson Avenue home of Harrington’s parents, Tom and Gina, are for a deployed son.
Thankfully, the weather is still a topic that can be discussed freely.
Given that Djibouti has a desert climate, Harrington was expecting a dry heat similar to the kind he heard guys deployed to Iraq and Bahrain talk about.
“No,” he said, “this is a wet heat. I was shocked at the humidity.”
He wasn’t particularly shocked when the order came to deploy.
“It was a running joke that they like to send submariners and maritime guys to the desert,” he said.
On one hand, a member of the Navy’s Order of the Blue Nose — a fraternity of sorts for sailors who circle the North Pole — would seem to be the proverbial fish out of water.
But Harrington is proof that they need bodies, and qualified officers at that.
Harrington joined the Navy in 2002 while at Iowa State University studying aerospace engineering.
He initially thought he might want to be a pilot, but learned he had a color deficiency in his vision.
“That doesn’t stop you from being a submariner,” he said.
“It seemed pretty cool to me,” he added. “I’d seen enough movies like ‘The Hunt for Red October.’ ”
Only once aboard the USS Greeneville did he realize that submarine movies aren’t at all accurate.
A 6 feet 1, he frequently found himself banging his head on overhead pipes.
“You learn to squat a little,” he said.
Still, from the standpoint of launching a career, “You can’t get better than the nuclear Navy,” he said.
Harrington spends his free time in Djibouti working toward his MBA degree.
Because Americans aren’t allowed to leave the base, “It’s kind of like ‘Groundhog Day.’ You walk to the same three places every day,” he said.
He was just settling into his new job at the Applied Physics Lab when he came up for deployment.
The APL is the facility established during World War II that famously developed the “radio proximity fuse,” an anti-aircraft shell that only had to get close enough to an enemy plane in order to detonate. The breakthrough achievement enabled naval air defenses in the Pacific to bring down an enemy plane with just a few shells, a job that once took as many as 2,400 shells.
The APL also developed the Navy’s first surface-to-air guided missiles.
“I’ve never worked with smarter people than I am now,” Harrington said.
His job is to help develop more user-friendly sonar and fire control systems aboard subs. He’s there to ensure that engineers build a product that sailors want.
Harrington met his wife, Chizuru, while stationed in Japan. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Mia, and a son, Jack, who was born May 19 — just days after Harrington reported for duty.
“I was there for the birth,” he said, “via text message.”
The family has been living in Jefferson with Harrington’s parents during his deployment to Africa.
“FaceTime is a godsend,” he said. “I’ve watched Jack grow up on it.”