Sgt. Liliana Munday worked out three times a day to prepare for the French Desert Commando course in the rugged mountains of Djibouti.

Munday was one of 40 U.S. service members who signed up for one of this year’s French Desert Commando Course, a five-day trial in the Arta Mountains, west of the nation’s capital, Djibouti City.

Munday, a South Carolina National Guard soldier with the 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade deployed to the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa, began training for the FDCC in September. Her training consisted of pre-dawn rucks and runs around the base, weight lifting, and daily dynamic, high-intensity exercises. 

Held in rugged mountains in Djibouti, the five-day course pushes soldiers through the fundamentals of desert combat with combat and fitness tests including obstacle courses, combatives, survival skills, and a final rope course in an open canyon where troops find themselves hundreds of feet in the air.

Still, as the day approached, she grew more nervous.

“I almost had an aneurysm, I was so scared,” Munday told the Army in a press release. “On the way out there I kept thinking, ‘Am I ready? Am I gonna do this? These guys are gonna smoke me, I’m just gonna be out here stranded and be sent home on day one’.” 

French desert commando training 

The French military originally operated Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, located at the tip of the Horn of Africa. After negotiations in 2001, the government in Djibouti allowed for the U.S. military to use the base.

Since 1974, French troops assigned to Djibouti have trekked to the rugged cliffs and canyons of the Arta Mountains outside the city for the grueling, five-day Desert Commando course as a routine training requirement for soldiers.

American troops have been in Djibouti since 9/11 as the only enduring U.S. military presence on the continent with around 4,000 U.S. forces and Department of Defense contractors. Troops on the base act as the primary operation center for U.S. Africa Command. In April 2023, the base supported the U.S. evacuation of its Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan.

In recent years, the French Army has invited U.S. military personnel to complete the Desert Commando course, which is run by the French 5th Overseas Interarms Regiment.

Before heading to the mountains for the FDCC, troops are put through a pre-assessment by the French, who only allow the most physically and mentally fit to take on the full course. Those who complete the course earn the French Desert Commando Badge.

After several weeks of training, the commando phase begins which includes several exercise courses for night obstacles, knot tying, and swimming, along with combative and desert survival skills training. In the February exercise, the commando phase’s culminating event included a rope course where troops had to navigate rope swings, rappel, mountain climb, and cross multiple rope bridges while suspended high above the ground.

Last February, more than 100 U.S. troops tried out for the course, with just 35 chosen to participate. By the end, 31 Army National Guard Soldiers and one U.S. Airman finished the course. 

Americans have participated for over a decade.

“I am glad I did it–you couldn’t pay me enough to do it again, but I’m very glad I did it,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Chad Warren after finishing the course in 2013.

In May of 2022, an Air Force team took on the course, which included SERE specialists from the Alaska Air National Guard, took on the course. Of the 50 Americans who started the course, only 25 finished.

“I heard the course was pretty heinous,” said Tech Sgt. Roy Wollgast, a survival, evasion, resistance, and escape specialist. “So I immediately wanted to participate.”

“The French have been operating here for a long time,” said Tech Sgt. Matthew O’Brien. “There’s a lot that we can learn from them, especially in this austere environment.”

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Earning the Commando ‘Scorpion’ badge

Munday’s first day included a five-kilometer ruck-run with a full kit, a PT test and rope climbs. It was the rope climbs she expected would get the best of her since she was only able to do one during her training sessions. 

Her training partner, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Perez, was there to support and encourage her as she steadily made her way to the top.

“I was there telling her she could do it. I knew she could,” said Perez. “She got up there and when she came back down she had a big smile beaming from her face. She was so excited and she ran over and gave me a big hug.” 

After getting over day one, Munday said she found her stride. “I proved to my squad that I was here to work and I deserved to be here,” she said.

The toughest event, she said, was the mountain obstacle course in which troops are required to jump across platforms spaced several meters apart, grab onto a steel pole, and slide down to the ground – 200 meters above the ground. 

U.S. Army SGT Liliana Munday holds her French Desert Commando pin Dec. 19, 2023, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Munday was one of 40 U.S. service members to go through the most recent iteration of the French Desert Commando Course. Established more than 50 years ago, the course teaches desert survival skills and tactics. (Department of Defense photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Gentile)
U.S. Army Sgt. Liliana Munday holds her French Desert Commando pin on Dec. 19, 2023, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Gentile.

“When you’re doing that mountain obstacle course you don’t realize how far each platform is from one another and there are points when you’re not clipped in,” she said. “I thought, if I missed even a little bit, I’m going down.”

At one point, Munday considered calling it quits.

“Your joints just start to scream. It’s painful,” she said. “I kept thinking I cannot take this pain anymore. I’m almost done but I cannot do it anymore.”

Munday remembered her mom and grandmother, two of the strongest women she looked up to.

“It was very nice to tell them that I did this,” Munday said. “They were like, ‘No way, that’s awesome!’ and when I told them I was the only female they said, ‘You’re kicking ass!’.” 

She received the French Desert Commando pin featuring a scorpion on the outline of Djibouti.

She had even motivated another soldier who had wanted to do the FDCC but was afraid he wasn’t ready.

“I said, ‘Sir, you’re never going to be ready.’ I didn’t think I was ready. But I got ready,” Munday said. “If you truly think or know that you want to do something no matter the current status that you’re in, if you want to pursue it you’re just gonna have to train and do what it takes to get to that point. There is no other way.”

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