Chris Raudabaugh ’14 watched the desert landscape whizzing by as he and his unit drove to a military base in the West African nation of Mauritania. He had traveled abroad before, but never to a place that was so remote, so different from his Delaware County home. Dotting the parched earth were crumbling walls and crude tents, which didn’t look like they offered much shelter from the heat and wind. In the city, goats and donkeys wandered the streets, and people rooted through the trash that was strewn everywhere.
“You’re going to the Sahara Desert for two weeks,” Raudabaugh had been told when the Army Reserve called him to go on this peace mission from February 15 to March 1. “So if you need something, bring it, because you’re not going to get it out there.”
Raudabaugh and his unit, the 744th Military Police Battalion out of Bethlehem, PA, were joining U.S., French, and British Special Forces to provide basic military and military police training for West African troops—how to navigate, shoot, run a prison, search a person or a vehicle, and other skills.
“With the training we provided, we really hope that it helps them further their knowledge and power and strength as an army,” Raudabaugh said. “Their military situation is very weak. They do not have the proper resources and opportunities to make themselves a better, stronger force. The threat of al-Qaeda is very real and scary there.”
The troops were eager to learn, asking questions for hours. The language barrier presented significant obstacles, but with the help of interpreters and hand motions, Raudabaugh and his fellow trainers were able to communicate with them. Despite their inexperience and young age—some were as young as 12 or 13—they learned quickly.
“It felt very good when the soldiers finally got it right,” Raudabaugh said. They expressed their gratitude, offering their trainers tea every day and giving them tea glasses as a parting token of thanks.
Mauritania is 100 percent Muslim, and Raudabaugh observed the locals participating in religious traditions such as the bathing of hands, head, and feet before prayer. Loudspeakers blaring Arabic woke Raudabaugh up daily at 4 a.m. The first time it happened, he was alarmed until a sergeant told him not to worry; it was a call to prayer.
“You’re always a little bit on edge when you’re in a foreign country,” Raudabaugh said. Fortunately, he got some advice and encouragement before he left from Colonel John Church, IU assistant professor of English and Marine Reservist, who had been on missions in Africa.
“It is not every day an IU student is in the service of his nation during a semester,” Church told him before his departure. “Some go to Bermuda or Jamaica for spring break… you are going to Mauritania on a mission. Amazing.
“Know that you will remain in our thoughts and prayers … It is not easy, but quite an honor and very challenging.” Church also advised him, “Remember your training, be aware of your surroundings at all times, and just keep your head down and drive on.”
Although Raudabaugh didn’t have any dangerous military encounters in Mauritania, the living conditions presented their own hazards. He missed being able to shower without worrying about accidentally ingesting the water and contracting dysentery. Medics told the troops to come in immediately even if they had a minor condition. Poor sanitation meant that a runny nose or a cut could turn into a life-threatening illness very quickly.
“You realize how many of the little things you really miss when you’re gone,” Raudabaugh reflected. “You come home and you have a greater appreciation for those kinds of things.”
While Raudabaugh was on his mission, Church emailed him periodically, which helped keep Raudabaugh in good spirits and made him feel connected with home.
Other members of the IU community were similarly supportive. Raudabaugh met with his professors before he left to make sure that he could miss two weeks of classes. “Every professor I have now was more than accommodating to me, which was great,” he said. It took some time to catch up on work after he returned, “but they were all very understanding.”
Raudabaugh’s military police experience coupled with his criminology degree will be an advantage in the job market, according to Steve Blumenthal, career development assistant. Although Raudabaugh was originally interested in becoming a local police officer after graduating, Blumenthal has been nudging him to aim higher.
“Most college graduates will say they want to join the FBI, but what they don’t realize is that the FBI takes very few candidates directly out of school,” Blumenthal said. However, “with his extensive training by the United States Army, recent deployments, and responsibilities, Chris as a rising senior has what most federal agencies look for in their candidates: years of experience and reliable, top-notch training.”