For eight months, Richard Vinroot Jr. has been living in a shipping container – also known as a containerized living unit, or CLU – at Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
A window and door have been cut into the CLU and a bathroom has been added on the back.
“All of us live in them,” says Vinroot Jr., speaking directly into his laptop – surprisingly, his Skype connection remains strong enough to hold an uninterrupted conversation. “They’re stacked on top of each other and stretched out on a concrete slab on the southwest side of Djibouti-Ambouli International airport, in the desert – mine is right on the airfield, overlooking the Special Operations compound.”
For Vinroot Jr., a New Orleans-based emergency medicine physician who joined the military three years ago, learning to live in a CLU hasn’t been difficult. He’s practiced medicine in austere environments around the world: as an HIV/TB field physician for Doctors Without Borders in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya; caring for citizens of New Orleans during – and in the aftermath of – Hurricane Katrina; treating Haitians in Jacmel La Valee, southern Haiti, five days after the 2010 earthquake; and serving as a Trauma Team Leader during Operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2014.
He admits, however, that CLU living in this part of remote Horn of Africa consists of a different set of challenges than he’s used to; best practice for CLU living sometimes means remaining inside for extended periods. The base, located across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, is not far north of the Equator. The weather is often “oppressive” and “practically inhospitable.” It is the hottest year-round inhabited place on earth. During cyclone season, severe storms roll in from the Indian Ocean, overwhelming the sun-baked earth, causing flooding; last fall, one such swell killed a number of people in Yemen. The CLUs leak – and even flood – during these storms.
Despite the unforgiving elements and modest accommodations, life could not be better for him.
“I truly believe I’m the luckiest man alive,” he says. “I’m a 46-year-old man who’s doing exactly what he wants to do.”
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