ISIOLO, Kenya –
As nearly 1,000 exercise participants gather in Kenya for this year’s iteration of Justified Accord (JA23), one U.S. Army Reserve Soldier returns to very familiar territory.
“It’s humbling to come back to my roots,” said U.S. Army Capt. Ronald Ottichilo, a microbiologist with U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa (SETAF-AF). “I'm reconnecting with old friends, letting them know I’m back home.”
Ottichilo traveled from Italy to Kenya where the Kenyan Defence Forces are hosting JA23, U.S. Africa Command’s largest exercise in East Africa. From Feb. 10–23, this multinational exercise brings together approximately 20 countries from four continents to increase partner readiness for peacekeeping missions, crisis response and humanitarian assistance.
Moving to the U.S. in 2017, Ottichilo was able to utilize the skills he developed during a Kenyan-based master's degree program at Maseno University to become a medical researcher with the Cleveland Clinic. He specializes in immunology and, specifically, how the human body reacts to pathogens.
The U.S. Army Reserve valued Ottichilo’s skills as a microbiologist, and the recruiter worked with him to streamline his direct-commissioning process as a first lieutenant. Due to provisions within the Immigration and Nationality Act, he was able to utilize his military service to become a U.S. citizen in 2020.
“Previously, I only worked with the civilian population,” he shared. “But the military gave me a chance to gain valuable leadership skills such as leading an entire surgical unit, the 366th Surgical Detachment based in Twinsburg, Ohio.”
Ottichilo joined SETAF-AF in December 2022, on active-duty orders for operational support which enable part-time service members, such as Guard and Reserve members, to serve full-time for a temporary length of time. Upon arrival to headquarters based in Vicenza, Italy, he learned he would soon be en route to Kenya for JA23.
U.S. Army Master Sgt. Aaron Butler, a medical logistics non-commissioned officer on the same surgical team at SETAF-AF, shared that it’s been a pleasure working with Ottichilo since his arrival.
“His unique perspective as a Kenyan American, combined with his extensive education in microbial pathogens and endemic diseases, is an invaluable asset for multinational military health protection,” added Butler.
Ottichilo says he is here to help wherever there is a need.
“My role at the exercise is to provide real-world medical advice to exercise participants to prevent illness from infectious diseases and injury,” said Ottichilo. “But what I really enjoy is seeing how SETAF fully integrates medical assistance into the exercise, providing care to U.S. Soldiers and African partner nations alike.”
His team disseminates critical information that informs force health protection such as circulating infectious diseases of military interest, Kenyan plant life and wildlife to avoid, as well as the kinds of dangerous insects, ticks and poisonous spiders that live within the area of operation.
“Capt. Ottichilo also conducts hygiene and sanitation inspections of the camp kitchens feeding our Soldiers,” said Butler. “His ability to communicate with our local national food service workers in their own language has greatly aided in protecting the quality of meals we share.”
He is not the first member of his family to serve in the military. His father served in the Kenyan Air Force as a warrant officer and weapon systems operator, retiring four years ago. The Ottichilo family comes from the Laikipia region of Kenya, where the Kenyan Defence Forces’ Laikipia Air Base is located.
“Half my childhood friends are officers and service members in the KDF,” Ottichilo shared. “Some are even participating in JA23.”
This year’s exercise features a multinational staff officer course, multiple live-fire exercises, multinational field training exercises and a medical civic action program (MEDCAP). The MEDCAP takes place at two local clinics where Kenyan and U.S. medical personnel will provide medical triage and other services such as maternity and newborn care.
Along with English and Swahili, Ottichilo speaks five different languages, enabling him to communicate with multiple tribes in Kenya, including those traveling from remote areas for medical care.
“Capt. Ottichilo's innate understanding of regional cultures has been instrumental in ensuring our partners' medical personnel are informed and integrated into our combined health service support plan,” added Butler.
Ottichilo said he is encouraged to be part of an exercise with lasting impact, especially one based in his native country.
“We wear different flags on our uniforms, and we represent different countries,” he said, “But here we are, all working together on the same team.”
He shared that this philosophy on life was shaped at an early age by his family and surrounding community. Humility, patience and giving every human an equal opportunity to succeed is what drives him, he emphasized.
“My family and mentors have been patient with me,” said Ottichilo. “Without that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”