Airmen save missing child, sharpen interoperability

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nick Wilson
  • 435th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Recently, an 822nd Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron security forces patrol team collaborated with local military members to rescue a two-year-old girl, after being notified by local villagers that she was lost near Nigerien Air Base 201.

“She simply wandered away from the village in the late evening hours,” said Chief Master Sgt. Rick A. Schlachter, 822nd EBDS Security Forces manager.  “By village we're literally talking mud and stick huts in the middle of the desert.”

The 822nd EBDS has complex and multi-layered duties in Africa. Sustaining positive relations with their host-nation partners is part of a unique mission that promotes regional stability and prosperity.

“Being available at the right time and the right place to help find their daughter was nothing short of a divine intervention,” said Lt. Col. Julia Jefferson, 822nd Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron commander, “We are so thankful for the opportunity to help the child make it home safely into her mother's arms.  That is what neighbors do for each other."

The patrol team consisted of 14 Security Forces members, all of whom were prepared to assist, regardless of the situation.

“We all felt the urgency to help and we tried to put ourselves in the family’s shoes, so to speak, and use that emotion to put a search into action,” said Tech. Sgt. Douglas N. Spangler, 822nd EBDS Security Forces squad leader. “We have heard that a similar situation happened in the summer of 2017 however, the outcome was not as good … the child in that incident was found deceased.”

The patrol team’s linguist met with the villagers outside of the base, where they found evidence that could lead to the child’s whereabouts.

“The linguist was on patrol with security forces when we made contact with the locals,” Spangler said.

In the black of the night, hundreds of tiny footprints scattered throughout multiple directions across a span of roughly two miles.

“When we found the footprints, we knew we had a chance to find the missing girl,” Spangler explained. “The squad’s feelings toward the possibility of finding the missing girl was to ensure we did everything we could to help the parents; we were just trying to help people in a time of need.”

The locals took the patrol team to the last known location of the footprints, where an organized search began.

“Much of the credit for finding the tracks and staying on course goes to our linguist.” Spangler said. “Without his help and knowledge, we wouldn’t have been able to locate the girl as fast as we did, if at all.”

In addition to the host nation military members, more than 40 villagers from the local area accompanied the Airmen during the search.   

“It’s nice to be able to count on the host nation to support their local communities during times like these,” Spangler said. “The support they provided helps portray a positive image of the Forces Armées Nigeriennes to local nationals.”

The Airmen finally found the child after two hours of rummaging through the night in sandy desert terrain. It was so dark that they could only use flashlights to search through hard packed sand, slate rock formations and gravel.

“Our first thoughts when finding the girl alive were feelings of joy and happiness, knowing that we were able to help the parents during their time of panic and need,” Spangler said.

Immediately, Spangler assessed the child for injuries, bites and wounds. The child appeared to be in good health when the team found her, but she was tired, scared and cold.

“She was dressed in just a T-Shirt and flip flops,” Spangler said.  “When we found her, she was very dusty from the wind and appeared distraught.”

The temperature that night was somewhere around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Spangler wrapped the girl in a blanket to keep her warm and prevent hypothermia.

“The potential for hypothermia existed because the girl had been missing for six hours before she was found,” Spangler said.  “Fortunately, she sustained no injuries.”

Both parents shed tears when their daughter was returned.

“The parents stated, ‘the ultimate sign of friendship is dropping everything to help someone in need,’” Spangler said. “The villagers said they are very happy U.S. forces are in their country helping and they truly believe U.S. forces are here doing good things for the people in the local area.”

The Airmen not only showcased their capabilities that night, but also demonstrated the U.S. Air Force’s effectiveness in working alongside host nation security forces to build interoperability as a team.

“If you can rapidly locate a small child hidden by the cover of darkness somewhere within three kilometers of your base security zone, then you can identify and intercept any threat approaching your installation,” Schlachter said.  “By quickly finding and returning the child to her village, the security team cemented a trust and goodwill that extends well beyond the base perimeter for years to come.”