CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti (CNN) -- U.S. Marines at Camp Lemonier -- the only American military base on the African continent -- spend much of their time vaccinating livestock, repairing schools and giving medical training.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Rear Adm. James Hart, in Camp Lemonier, December 2007.
The camp, just 10 miles north of the Somali border, began as a French Foreign Legion outpost, but the Djibouti government agreed in 2002 to let the U.S. military establish a base for counterterrorism and humanitarian missions in the Horn of Africa.
The 1,800 U.S. troops in Djibouti spend just a fraction of their time on military tasks, such as locating and removing land mines. They conduct civil affairs operations in seven East African countries -- seen as an antidote to extremism.
"If you get at the basic needs of any individual, if you address the basic needs of people, then you have the opportunity to change their mindset, then you have the opportunity to show them that there is something better than doing extreme acts," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Roosevelt Barfield, deputy commander of the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa.
Many of the Marines in Djibouti, a predominantly Muslim country, previously served in Iraq.
"In Iraq, you can just go out and pretty much roll around and you do what you got to do and your mind set is a lot different," said Marine Cpl. Chad Armstrong. "Here, this country is a sovereign nation. Their government is established and everything, so there is a lot more working with the governments here."
The military role, though, sometimes upstages the humanitarian mission.
Periodic airstrikes of suspected al Qaeda terrorist targets in Somalia, often from U.S. warships, has created animosity among ethnic Somalis in the region.
The U.S. military presence in Djibouti underscores the growing importance of Africa to the U.S. military. The United States has created a centralized military command for Africa, U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, which will become fully operational in October.
The reluctance of African leaders to host a U.S. military facility, however, has hampered selection of a headquarters location for AFRICOM. Liberia, so far, is the only African country to offer. For now, AFRICOM is based in Stuttgart, Germany.