When Richard Vinroot arrived last September at Camp Lemonnier, a small U.S. military installation in Djbouti, on the east coast of Africa, he quickly found out that being a North Carolina alumnus was a powerful connection in that part of the world.
“When I got here, people said the executive officer, Commander Williams, will really like you when he finds out you’re a Carolina grad,” said Vinroot, an emergency doctor and the son of the former Charlotte mayor of the same name. “I hunted him down right away.”
On Saturday, Vinroot will be part of a Tar Heels contingent gathering late that night – Djibouti is eight hours ahead – in the base’s wardroom, its main social venue, to watch North Carolina take on N.C. State in football. He’ll be joined by Cmdr. Charles Williams, the base’s second-in-command and chief administrative officer, and Lt. Randy Johnson, an information-technology officer, all North Carolina natives, and perhaps a few others.
In anticipation of this moment some months ago, Williams gathered the camp’s North Carolina and N.C. State fans together for a photo with flags of each school. Of the five in that photo, only Williams and Johnson are still on the base. The other three have moved on, as a tour at Camp Lemonnier only lasts 11 months, and sometime less than that.
“We tried to get some balance, an equal number of State fans and Carolina fans,” Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more people here from North Carolina than just the handful in that picture.”
Williams is a Naval reservist who lives in Raleigh and works for J.P. Morgan, a 1991 UNC graduate and former Naval aviator who was recalled to service last December and arrived in Djibouti in April. He oversees the day-to-day operations of the only United States military installation in Africa.
Camp Lemonnier is a former French base adjacent to Djibouti’s international airport that the United States took over in 2003 and has been steadily expanding since. About 4,800 soldiers and civilians representing all branches of the military and other coalition forces serve there now, conducting antiterrorism, antipiracy and humanitarian missions in and around the Horn of Africa, especially in neighboring Somalia and Ethiopia.
With temperatures that reach 140 degrees in the summer and facilities that despite constant improvement remain spartan, not to mention constant personnel turnover, football fandom is a big part of building base culture. The wardroom is decorated with flags trumpeting various college allegiances along with several televisions that show games aired on the Armed Forces Network or ESPN3 streams, including a big 70-incher.
The big one will show the State-Carolina game on Saturday, and there will be no debate. Williams commands the remote.
“Having the boss man be able to get these things on his TV is very, very nice,” Vinroot said.
Johnson grew up in Dover and has been at Camp Lemonnier since July. He made sure to clear his schedule Saturday night long ago to see the game, although he’s a little disappointed to have waited this long for a North Carolina football season like this, only to be so far away.
“It’s actually kind of a struggle,” Johnson said. “It’s a smaller niche of Carolina fans, whereas if I was back in North Carolina, there would be flags everywhere and hooting and hollering. Most of the people I work with here are Big Ten fans.”
Vinroot isn’t complaining. He missed the Tar Heels last season while stationed in Afghanistan, where the more rudimentary facilities and time difference conspired to make watching both football and basketball games difficult. That won’t be an issue Saturday, when a late-night football game between two Triangle rivals will make the far side of the world feel a little bit more like home at Thanksgiving.
“We are a long way from home this holiday weekend,” Williams said. “This will be one thing, along with being able to Skype with our families, that will make us feel an awful lot closer.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock