Soddy-Daisy soldier helping train African counterparts

A U.S. Naval Sea Cadet holds an American flag before the Armed Forces Day Parade on Friday, May 6, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. This was the first Armed Forces Day Parade since last July's shootings at military facilities in which five service members were killed.

On the outskirts of Thies, a city in Senegal that sits less than 20 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, a man from Soddy-Daisy is getting a crash course in the culture of West Africa.

That is, when he's not directing barrages of explosive mortar rounds or hoofing it through the country's arid grasslands in full tactical gear.

Staff Sgt. Daniel Thomas, 30, who serves in the Army's 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., has been stationed in Senegal for the last two weeks.

The 2004 graduate of Soddy-Daisy High School enlisted at age 20, and after a decade of service he's been all over the world. His latest mission is part of a training program designed to build relationships and coordination between the U.S. and its African partners.

Thomas and his men work in a program called Africa Readiness 16, training Senegalese infantrymen in American tactics and exercises.

ART16 is the first exercise of its kind on the continent and will be carried out in other countries over the next several years.

"They're really receptive to our tactics," Thomas said in a phone interview Friday. "I haven't met one soldier who hasn't been amped up to learn what we know."

Thomas is a mortar section sergeant, and several of the exercises his men lead their counterparts through involve laying, directing and firing weapons systems. The goal is to train the Senegalese troops to be faster and more effective. More deadly.

Maj. Michael Weisman, the plans and operations chief in the Army's Africa public affairs office, said the mortar is an essential component of any infantry force because of its mobility and firepower.

"It's the most devastating weapon they can bring," he said.

As for the odds of someone from the Chattanooga area winding up in Senegal, Weisman said it's probably a first.

"I'm guessing the number of people that have come from Soddy-Daisy and gone to Senegal is one right now," he said.

Sen. Bob Corker, chairman for the Foreign Relations Senate committee said he is proud of Tennessee service members who participate in programs like ART16.

"Senator Corker is proud of the work our men and women in uniform do across the globe, especially the many Tennesseans working to advance U.S. interests," said Micah Johnson, a spokeswoman for Corker.

"He supports training efforts that enhance U.S. national security, aid in achieving foreign policy objectives, and improve the ability of countries to protect and defend their people," said Micah Johnson, a spokeswoman for Corker."

Through all the marching and shooting, cooperation between the Americans and Senegalese troops also leads to some friendly competition in the field. Thomas said they have races with setup and teardown.

"Whoever wins picks an exercise everyone else has to do," he said.

The three weeks of training are intensive - exercises start before 9 a.m. and stretch into the late afternoon - but the troops have also found time to cut loose on what down time they have.

Thomas said they hosted a culture day at the training center and the Senegalese locals set up a bazaar for the soldiers. Merchants brought handmade goods like sculptures and carved boar tusks.

And after everything, they had a little more friendly competition, this time without the weapons.

"We played [our version of] football and then we played their football," he said.

His unit also had the opportunity to go on safari to the Bandia Reserve, an attraction that hosts everything from giraffes to crocodiles on more than 8,000 acres. But with hunting season fast approaching, Thomas said, he's ready to get back to the wildlife back home in the American Southeast.

"Especially during the hunting season, I live in the woods down there," he said. "And fishing. You can't forget fishing."

It won't be long before Thomas gets to return home to his wife in Hinesville, Ga., but he misses things in Chattanooga, too. His parents still live in Soddy-Daisy.

At the top of the list?

"Griffin's Hot Dogs," he laughed.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.