An Embassy Guard Commander's nightmare, realized
Danger Abroad: An American Family Imperiled
For those who volunteer, the danger is a known, a part of the job. For the family members who accompany them outside the U.S., though, the threat is never quite fully appreciated, like something that happens elsewhere, to others. The dangers are real, which makes the debt of gratitude we owe those who accept the risks that much greater. Here, Gear Patrol offers you an account of threats faced by a Marine assigned to embassy duty in Africa, and the real costs paid by his family. Their story puts teeth to the fact that travel and life abroad can turn into a dangerous affair, anywhere, anytime.
A vastly different continent, a vastly different response to elections
Gunnery Sergeant Paul Walters was the Marine Security Guard Detachment Commander for the U.S. Embassy in Lome, Togo in 2005 when President Faure Gnassingbe seized power following the death of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema. Togo is a West African post-colonial nation rich in oil and natural gas, and Lome is the country’s capital. The elder Gnassingbe had ruled for Togo 38 years — essentially a lifetime in Sub-Saharan Africa. The dynastic coup by his son was poorly received by the opposition and the West African states, which forced Faure to hold elections in April 2005. The son handily won under contested conditions — the U.S. called the elections “questionable” — and both the opposition and pro-Faure forces took to the streets.
View Larger Map
Togo is a West African post-colonial nation rich in oil and natural gas; Lome is the country’s capital, situated on the Gulf of Guinea.
As the detachment commander, Paul was the senior Marine, responsible for leadership, supervision, and discipline of the group of Marines who secure the interior of the American embassy, as is the case at the U.S. embassies and consuls around the world. Detachments range from four Marines at smaller posts to more than 20 at larger ones; as this was Paul’s first tour, he was given a smaller detachment. The detachment commander walks the line between stern taskmaster for the Marines, ensuring both meticulous performance and proper military bearing, and the role of congenial co-worker in the often academic, collegial world of the State Department. Paul reported directly to the Regional Security Officer: the Ambassador’s head of security, Rich Verrier. “I got along well with Rich”, Paul said. “He was no-nonsense, didn’t play any games, and looked out for me and the Marines. Which was good, because some of the RSOs can be real assholes, treating the Marines like their personal sideboys”. That good relationship was going to prove even more important to Paul’s family.
At the embassy, advance warning that the election results were to be announced that day, April 26th, came in the morning. Unlike the U.S., power in many Africa nations does not pass peacefully. Violence and rioting were anticipated — whichever side lost the election was certain to be unhappy about the results and likely to take to the streets. The RSO (Rich) and Paul recommended authorized departures of family members; however, the Charge d’Affairs (the Ambassador position was temporarily vacant after Ambassador Engle was assigned to Baghdad) disallowed it. “We knew things were going to be crazy”, Paul recalled. “Some of us with family in country tried to convince the acting ambassador to authorize an evacuation of dependents, but he wouldn’t entertain it”. In the State Department, such action, as well as requesting military support, is akin to declaring defeat. You only had to evacuate people if you failed at diplomacy, the thinking went, and therefore there was strong cultural pressure to forestall authorized departures. In lieu of leaving the country, Paul and his wife, Yolanda, kept their two sons, Vincent and Tony, home from school. While no one actually thought Americans would be targeted, it was best to stay off the streets.
Yolanda, who also worked at the embassy, left to join the boys at home and immediately bogged down in the heavy traffic of the capital city. Normally a 10 minute drive from the embassy to their house, the trip took her almost an hour to make. She called Paul from the car to alert him of the delay. Once Yolanda finally got home, she sent the housekeeper home to be with her family and settled in with the boys. Shortly after, all cell phone communications ceased as the government shut down the network. Fortunately, the embassy was prepared for such contingencies and provided all personnel handheld radios. The Walters’ radio would prove to be a crucial lifeline when things turned ugly.
The City Erupts
A man’s two duties
Paul had reported for duty at the embassy as usual, but now his job to ensure that the compound was secure and embassy personnel safe became infinitely more difficult. The four marines under his command formed a capable but thin line against a large crowd should things turn ugly. Fortunately, the brunt of the violence appeared to be focused between the two political sides, not directed against the U.S. Embassy.
Nagging at the back of Paul’s mind, however, was the safety of Yolanda and his sons. “I was trying to focus on my job, but I was distracted and worried about Yolanda and the kids. But I thought they would be OK”, Paul said. Hunkered down in their rental house, a quick trip from the embassy under normal conditions, his family was safe as long as they stayed off the streets (where they might encounter incidental danger), Paul reasoned. Certainly, no one thought Americans would be specifically targeted. Americans were well-regarded in Togo, and members of the embassy country team were definitely “off-limits”. At least, that’s what everyone understood. The ground rules were changing, and Paul’s worst fears were about to be realized.
Home on the Front Lines
“They are killing people in the market”
“When are you coming home?” she asked.
“I don’t know — it’s pretty bad out there and I have to make sure things are secure here at the embassy”, Paul replied.
“They are killing people in the market, behind the house”.
Between 1430 and 1500, Yolanda heard screams from the market immediately north of the Walters’ house. A jeep with a mounted machine gun pulled up and began shooting indiscriminately, spraying the area with bullets. Machete-wielding men circled the area, clearing people out. Logs and burning tires blocked the roads. This chaos, and the killing, continued for about 20 minutes. Then the neighborhood fell quiet. During all of this, young Vincent stood at the back window, taking pictures. Wearing a white shirt, the colors of the opposition, and favoring his mother’s Filipino heritage, he could easily be mistaken for a participant.
The quiet was broken by screaming from the back of the house, then banging on the compound’s back gate. Yolanda called Paul, and told him that rioters were trying to get in. Paul remembers that radio call clearly, as if he is still in the moment. “The next time I received a radio communication was right before 1500, then the attack began, and the next thing I heard over the radio was that they had broken through the back metal gate. I could hear the banging over Yolanda”. Over the radio he picked out the distinct sounds of yelling, hammering, rocks breaking glass windows and then the booming of shotgun blasts. The men were shooting at the house. Over the din, Yolanda told Paul they had broken through the back metal gate. Yolanda was terrified — not just for herself, but for her sons. “I knew if they got in, they were going to kill us”, she said.
As the men came into the compound, Yolanda retreated to a back room on the second floor and told Paul over the radio that the attackers were in the house. “I felt like I should’ve been there”, he said. His helplessness was staggering. The rioting and obstacles made a quick run to the house all but impossible — that 10 minute trip would take over an hour. Regardless, he and another Marine began assembling equipment for a rescue; still, Paul openly feared it would be a recovery mission. Against specific rules, he grabbed a pistol. “I didn’t give a damn about the rules. This was my family”, he said. As he was preparing, Rich, the RSO and Paul’s boss, came on the radio. “I’m five minutes out”, he said. Rich was out in the chaos, wading through the crowds, negotiating past impromptu blockades, ensuring members of the embassy staff and their families were safe. Monitoring Paul and Yolanda’s radio communications, he had started making his way to the Walters’ home. It put him close enough to respond when things turned ugly.
To the Rescue
A hammer in one hand…
Rich entered the house, bellowing obscenities and swinging a machete in one hand and a hammer in the other, clearing a swath through the looters. Inconceivably, the looters fled before the surprise onslaught. He called to Yolanda, confirming that the second floor was secure and that Yolanda and the boys were safe, before returning downstairs. There, he found a looter attempting to steal the Walters’ vehicle. Rich struck the back of the man’s head with his machete, splattering blood throughout the interior of the car. (No one knows if Rich killed the would-be looter, but given a machete whack to the head and a third-world medical system, the prognosis for the man probably wasn’t good.) Once Rich got the Togoan military to secure the compound, he returned to Yolanda and cleared a path to the bathroom so she and the boys could escape. Rich would later receive recognition from the State Department for his actions during the rioting, with no specific mention of saving Paul’s family from almost certain death.
Searching for answers
Why would government-backed militia come after Paul’s family? Paul’s only explanation is purely speculative — that someone saw Vincent taking pictures, which drove militia inside to retrieve the incriminating evidence. At the time, the State Department believed the militia was backed by the Togoan government to stir things up, fomenting violence in order to justify putting down the opposition. In the rush to safety, Vincent left the camera behind, and once the tornado of violence had subsided, the camera, and the family’s best evidence, was gone. The pictures shown here are from the following day.
There appears to have been a lot of effort to keep the incident quiet. Both the Department of State and the Marine Corps went to great lengths to ensure Yolanda got everything she requested. She was asked if she wanted out of the program with no consequences to her husband’s career. Knowing how important finishing his three-year tour was to Paul, she declined. Offered any open post, she selected Hong Kong for its closeness to her family. The State Department reimbursed the Walters for all the damage to their personal property, without the usual red tape claims to the government normally entail. They still have the SUV the unfortunate looter tried to steal, fully re-furbished and cleaned of blood at the State Department’s expense.
Living with the consequences
Maybe because it’s Africa, or perhaps because the events in Togo took place against the backdrop of combat operations in Iraq, the death and damage in Togo didn’t receive much attention from the international media. The Peace Corps reported entire villages wiped out or vacated. Displaced Togoans crossed the border into Ghana to escape the fighting. Unfortunately, violence, genocide, and turmoil frequently escapes the notice here in the U.S. without a Facebook campaign or a slow news day elsewhere.
In any case, the Walters’ misadventure is a glaring example of just how quickly danger can stalk even the most veteran and professional of world travelers. Awareness of the larger situation around you is always vital in a foreign place. More than anything, Paul’s story shows that even skill and preparedness can fail when you least expect it.
You would be tempted to consider Paul’s experience a cautionary tale against service abroad. However, Paul didn’t shrink from overseas assignment, trading third world uncertainty for the spy vs. spy of Hong Kong, an altogether different danger. Once more into the fray: a mindset mirrored by thousands of Americans, inside State and other departments. We owe a silent gratitude to their sacrifices, and the less heralded sacrifices of their families.