By Lori Quiller, AFCLC Outreach Team
/ Published July 07, 2020
Maj Ryan Hess
It should have been an uneventful flight. Washington, DC, to Brussels, Belgium, to Kigali, Rwanda, where Maj Ryan Hess would begin the first leg of his in-region training in Africa. “I think I have a trump card for one of the worst travel stories of all time,” Hess laughed. “Anytime someone says they have a bad-travel story, they have no idea!”
It began with a weather delay on the runway in Brussels. When the plane finally took flight four hours later, the pilot informed the passengers there was a change in the flight plan. Instead of landing first in Kigali, which was his destination, the plane was being rerouted to Entebbe, Uganda, and then Kigali. With the change in flight plans, the only thing on Hess’s mind at the time was whether his luggage would make it to his destination. “Spoiler alert…it got much worse,” Hess said.
When the plane finally arrived at Entebbe, the pilot announced the continuation of the flight to Kigali was canceled, leaving Hess and 70 other passengers stranded in Uganda.
“There we were stuck in the Entebbe airport without any visas, no place to stay, and wondering what to do next. We all stood in front of the customs agent’s window for about an hour, with him not looking directly at us because I think he thought if he didn’t look us in the eye, then we might go away,” Hess said shaking his head.
To make their way ahead to Kigali, the group would need to travel six hours by bus. Maj Hess was way off schedule. “During this entire experience, one of the questions I had in mind was, at what point should I call AFCLC to say I’m a little off track, but it’s good, it’s going to be all good? We were stuck at the border between Rwanda and Uganda because no one called ahead to tell the Rwandans there was a bus full of tourists without visas coming through the border, so they searched all our bags. That’s when I got in touch with Sheila Milterson at AFCLC. She let me know this was not normal,” he said.
What was supposed to be a six-hour bus ride took 10 hours, and with other delays, including the flight from Brussels, Hess was 38 hours behind schedule when he landed in Kigali, but when he arrived, he hit the ground running.
“The team in Kigali was amazing,” Maj Hess said. “From an officer development perspective, they said it would be a cultural immersion, but they wanted to see what else I could do, so they put me to work. They asked if I was ready for real responsibilities, and I didn’t turn them down. I was a bit nervous at first because I thought it was going to be like, let’s give the intern some paperwork and make him go away.”
Hess’s assignment to the Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali was only for two months, but it was an active two months. Not only was he in Rwanda in 2019 during the 25th anniversary of the genocide in which more than 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days, which posed its own set of cultural issues, but he coordinated and represented the embassy at the African Partnership Flight (APF).
“The largest and most important responsibility I had was to coordinate and represent the embassy at the APF,” Hess explained. “The APF was a weeklong conference for six African nations. The objective of the conference was to review, discuss, and improve the flight safety practices of the countries present. Before I did anything, I explained to the ODC chief that I wasn’t actually a FAO, or trained to be a FAO yet, and this was a huge responsibility. But the chief said, ‘Yes you are, and I don’t care. Make this happen.’ It was terrifying, but at the same time, it worked well. I remember the first day my hair was on fire organizing everything and making sure everyone was where they needed to be, the Senegalese had the proper information, and the Rwandans were good where they were seated…it was a lot!”
He may not have had the official training of a Foreign Area Officer (FAO) while on the ground in Africa, but his on-the-job training was without equal. The next leg of Hess’s trip was to Dakar, Senegal, for language training, where he found himself in the middle of a traditional Senegalese sport in a way he never imagined.
“The bulk of my regional and cultural experiences came first-hand from my professors or my host family. I told my professors at the school that I enjoyed and participated in martial arts and wanted to see a Lutte Sénégalaise, which is a traditional wrestling match. Someone put me in touch with one of the fighters. Originally, I thought he would be able to get me access to great seats to a match he was in, but he was a great guy…and I ended up his hype man! He’d yell at the crowd, and then he’d look at me and motion for me to do the same, so then I’d yell at the crowd. This went on forever! I’m not sure how everything happened, but it was a lot of fun!” Hess laughed.
The last leg of the trip was in Rabat, Morocco, for a final turn in strategic engagement while assigned to the Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy. At each turn, Hess said he experienced first hand the strength of the U.S. alliance with each country and was thrilled to be utilized to further the partnerships in each country. If he had any doubts about his chosen profession when he boarded that plane in Brussels, those doubts soon abated as he spent more time on the ground in Africa.
“You know you have the right job when you have a hectic day at work, but you still love what you do. When I first got to Kigali, I was a little worried that maybe I had committed my entire career to being a FAO, but that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Then there was that crazy week that made me realize I’m doing the job I was meant to do. I’m right where I’m supposed to be,” Hess said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
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