Christmas in Djibouti

Courtesy photos: Above, Emily Van Klompenburg, a medical operations officer in the South Dakota Army National Guard and an assistant professor at pharmacy practice at South Dakota State University, stands at the entrance of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, Africa, Oct. 25. She arrived in late September and won’t return to the U.S. until mid-2021. Below, Van Klompenburg is serving in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa near the Gulf of Aden. Shown here Dec. 18 during the temperate season, it is still hot and humid with evening temperatures in the low 80s.

SDSU pharmacy prof stationed with Guard in Africa

BROOKINGS – Sun. Sand. A view of the gulf. Sounds like a great spot to spend Christmas.

Emily Van Klompenburg isn’t complaining, but it wouldn’t be her first choice to spend Christmas. That’s because the gulf is the Gulf of Aden and she is stationed in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti City on the Horn of Africa.

Van Klompenburg, who is an assistant professor in pharmacy practice at South Dakota State University, is also a medical operations officer in the 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade out of Sioux Falls. Her South Dakota Army National Guard unit has been in Djibouti since late September and there are no holiday furloughs.

The 200 members of the 196th won’t return to South Dakota until mid-2021.

The unit has an administrative role and will be assisting with the command and control of the U.S. base in the key Middle East location. As medical operations officer, Van Klompenburg oversees all U.S. military medical operations in East Africa. “I have oversight of what medical assets we have and facilitate orders from higher-ups.

“I work with the Air Force, Navy and Marines. We also have British counterparts here. If somebody down range is hurt, I assist with the process of medical evacuation to a higher-level care and make sure those sites have adequate supplies and personnel.”

Joined Guard in 2010

If Van Klompenburg wasn’t serving Uncle Sam, she would be working in internal medicine at Sanford Health and teaching third-year pharmacy students in clinical and classroom settings. She has taught at SDSU since August 2017. Until joining Sanford in April, she worked in ambulatory care at the Sioux Falls VA Hospital.

A Montevideo, Minnesota, native, Van Klompenburg joined the military to help pay for her education at South Dakota State.

She participated in ROTC and joined the Guard in 2010. Van Klompenburg earned her bachelor’s degree in 2013 and commissioned into the Army National Guard as a medical service corps officer. She completed her Pharm.D. degree in 2015 and followed that with two years of postgraduate residency, one in Milbank and one in Texas.

It is her first deployment. The unit was notified in September 2019 and its activation ceremony wasn’t until Aug. 27.

A unique assignment

The base has been in place for two decades but there is a sense that the 196th is a pioneering unit. Previously, Camp Lemonnier was directed by individuals who would come in for six to 12 months. “There was always new faces and a lack of continuity,” Van Klompenburg said. It was decided a maneuver enhancement brigade would be a better option.

While the 196th will be gone in a year, a similarly trained brigade will follow and the thinking is that operations will therefore be more efficient, she said.

Serving in Africa is interesting, Van Klompenburg said, “They say there is always something in Africa to kill you. Malaria, hazardous snakes, sand flies, torrential rains in Kenya. Africa is humongous. It’s 3 1/2 times the size of United States. Nothing is easy here. The coast of Somalia would stretch from Maine to Florida. We really have to plan out how we’re moving patients and how we’re getting supplies to people in our area of responsibility.”

Extreme snail mail

With COVID-19 reducing the number of commercial flights into Europe, it delays shipping of mail and supplies to Camp Lemmonier.

“It takes four to six weeks, if not eight weeks, to get mail. We can send Amazon stuff to us, but it’s going to take four weeks. Mom was trying to send me lefse for Christmas. I said, ‘That’s not a good idea. It would probably mold before I get it,’” said Van Klompenburg, who lives in her own renovated shipping container and shares a bathroom.

She does have good internet access and is able to talk twice a day with her new husband. She married Bill Vitetta this summer.

While video conferencing, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are great communication tools, Van Klompenburg misses having her friends and family nearby. Her parents, David and Kelly, are still in Montevideo. Bill is in Sioux Falls, where he is a compliance officer for Bancorp.

“I miss home cooking and the opportunity to go out with people and enjoy good food. I miss our Traeger grill at home and having a kitchen that is next to me instead of having to walk a quarter mile to get food,” Van Klompenburg said.

Simple Christmas plans

On Thanksgiving, she missed out on a “gorgeous” meal in the galley because she had to quarantine due to a close contact with someone who had COVID-19. “I did have somebody sneak me some pumpkin pie.”

Van Klompenburg didn’t test positive and the overall COVID-19 situation has been good on base. However, because there are 3,000 people on an isolated base with only the basics in medical care, everyone who arrives is tested and has to spend 14 days in quarantine. If there was a serious case, patients would be flown to Germany, she said.

On Christmas, she plans to watch holiday movies with a friend and make a Zoom call to the Van Klompenburgs when they carve the turkey.

Living in a world of contrasts

She said the highlight of her deployment has been “getting to know people better. There are lots of people I’m here with now that actually graduated with me from SDSU. There is a guard unit from Minnesota that has several graduates from SDSU … people I’ve known for a decade, a lot of SDSU grads.”

Van Klompenburg also is glad Christmas is relatively early in the deployment. “It’s still fresh and exciting being here.”

Being away from the United States at Christmas has given Van Klompenburg a chance to see how overblown and commercialized Christmas is here. “The holidays are really about spending time with people. When I have gone into Djibouti city, you realize how lucky we are as Americans and how well of lifestyle we live.

“There are people here that are just so poor and so hungry. It’s just a different world.”

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