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Safe Ride Driver Served with Navy in Somalia

By Venkatesh Satish
Associate News Editor

MIT students who are on Safe Ride and are speaking a foreign language may not know that someone is listening to their conversations.

"I listen to the kids speaking Korean, Thai, or Filipino, and I know what they're saying, and sometimes I'll surprise them by saying good night to them in their language. Sometimes, they're a little shocked that. I could know what they are saying. I get kind of a kick out of that."

The person who occasionally surprises these unsuspecting students with his cultural diversity is Lt. Cmdr. James R. Brackett, of the U.S. Naval Reserve, who has been a Safe Ride driver for almost two years.

Brackett, who has been in the military since 1972, has traveled to 64 countries and speaks 10 languages to some degree. The list of conflicts and crises he has been involved with include Vietnam, Iran, Panama, Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, the Persian Gulf, Haiti, and North Korea.

His career has taken him through hostile cities and territories, but he has managed to avoid harm. "Which makes Safe Ride a good job for me, because I can guide people out of areas that look like they might be dangerous. In a couple of instances, I really think I have helped a couple of [students]," he said.

Most recently, Brackett was in Somalia, where he was involved in the U.S. mission to protect the United Nations peacekeeping forces during their February withdrawal.

Brackett served as convoy commodore, charged with bringing 11 ships to Somalia for the pullout. He was stationed in Somalia from Feb. 11 to March 1.

He also helped to bring ships into Mogadishu harbor during Operation Restore Hope, the mission to alleviate the famine and establish security in the war-torn region.

The humanitarian mission quickly became dangerous as members of Somalia's warring factions attacked U.S. forces. "I really take it [personally] when people shoot bullets at me," Brackett said. "I spent as little time in Mogadishu as I could possibly get away with."

Brackett said that, in some cases, the aid was used to manipulate the poor by the leaders of the factions, such as Gen. Mohamed Aidid. The assistance "can either be given or withheld. For some people, who are starving or sick, the not giving of either medicine or food is as much killing them as pointing a gun to their head and shooting," he said.

"Is this aid actually going to the people if the United States government forces are involved? Yes, it is. If it's some of these world organizations, it gets to the country it's supposed to go to," but not necessarily to the people who need the assistance, Brackett said.

Despite the problems that were encountered in the mission and the political debate over the role of the United States in foreign operations, Brackett still has a positive outlook on the U.S. "I felt we did something very, very good. We got them fed, healthy, and back together again to quite an extent. And that was originally what the mission was," he said.

"I was glad that our successful mission was completed, and I was glad that our troops left as unscathed as they did," Brackett said.

Brackett did not feel that installing a new government in Somalia, which was a U.N. goal, could be achieved by outside forces. "Ultimately, wherever you go, the people that live there are going to decide how their area is governed."

Brackett is a member of the Maritime Prepositioning Ships Squadron Two (Compsron II), which is responsible for positioning ships in the Indian Ocean.

He also recently received the Joint Meritorious Unit Award for his military service in Operation Restore Hope. The award recognized the efforts of Unified Task Force Somalia, which deployed the two-year mission. The group award was presented to approximately 20 of the members of Compsron II that took part in the mission.

The military needed personnel who had merchant mariner's licenses and were in the Navy in order to execute Operation Restore Hope, and Brackett was the naval liason officer for his specific operation, which was getting supply ships into Mogadishu. He was periodically in Somalia from April to August 1993.

Brackett's military accomplishments include obtaining the Navy Achievement medal, which is awarded for performing an exceptional task. He received the award for training people to perform naval control of merchant shipping under hostile conditions. He also is under consideration for promotion to commander.

He has taken advantage of MIT classes ranging from Charm School to CPR, and plans on eventually taking a graphic arts class.