COUNTY TREASURER HOME
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Only once did Allen Ruffles feel he was in any danger.
A sergeant in the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, Army Reserves, he was living in a small wooden house in Uganda, training local wildlife rangers in anti-poaching techniques.
One morning, Ruffles – Otsego County treasurer in civilian life – heard a rumble and looked out the window at a herd of a few dozen elephants. Grabbing his cell phone, he slipped outside to capture a video.
He must have made a sudden noise or movement, because suddenly the video is flailing as Ruffles scrambles back into the house.
Eventually, the herd settled down and went sedately on its way.
Other than that, Ruffles’ 12-month assignment – he returned Sunday, Jan. 19, from Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti to his Beech Street home and wife Amy, daughter Mia, 11, and son Cooper, 6 – was uneventful.
Except everything was eventful, he related in an interview the following day: the people, the food, the weather, and his forays from his home base to conduct anti-poaching training in Tanganyika, Uganda, Burundi, “the second or first poorest nation in the world,” and a short stint in Ethiopia.
The house in Uganda was a luxury. Mostly, Ruffles and his team lived in tents.
“Everything’s so simple,” he said. “There’s no electricity,” and when in the bush, Ruffles would have to charge up a generator to power his laptop so he could confer with the Otsego County. The latrine – a hole in the ground.
The wildlife rangers his unit was training “know their stuff. They can tell you everything about the animals,” but mostly lacked education and basic skills. For instance, they would fire off their rifles randomly, and part of the training was in basic marksmanship.
Ruffles’ tent mate was a medic, training the rangers in how to treat a wound or tie a tourniquet.
For his part, Ruffles focused on “land navigation.” For instance, if a path is winding back and forth, you can make better time by going forward in a straight line.
If you come upon a gang of armed poachers, don’t confront them head-on. Sending out a flanking movement, and when they move toward the main unit, surprise them from the side.
Another area of instruction was what Ruffles characterized as “ethics” or “human rights.” Stumbling upon poachers, the wildlife rangers’ first instinct was to shoot them dead. The goal was to give the rangers a sense of due process – that not every offense was a capital one.
Coming from a culture where fruits and vegetables are treated to last for days, even weeks, on grocery shelves, Ruffles experience the real thing for the first time.
Once, in Burundi’s Kibira Mountains, stopped at a home surrounded by fruit trees – mangoes, bananas, berries – and the owner put together a salad bowl for the visitors. “It was like candy,” said Ruffles. “The fruit was so juicy.”
In Tanganika, the unit had a local cook, Grace, who would whip up a fresh chapatti for breakfast, or a salad – flavor-filled, like the fruit – with Pili Pili dressing, made with hot Habanero peppers. “When Grace made salad, that was the whole meal,” he said.
Back at Camp Lemmonier, the food was like your typical college dining hall.
There was little to do at headquarters, so Allen played a lot of basketball and worked out. With that, and his assignments in the field, he left weighing 238 and returned a trim 205, some 33 pounds lighter.
More moderate on assignment, the heat and humidity back in Djibouti was something to watch for, with the mercury rising into the upper 120s. When that happened, a “black flag” was flown, cautioned the soldier from any exertion. “Just walking to where we worked, I was drenched with sweat,” he said.
Ruffles was interviewed amid a family giddy with delight on his first day back. He, Amy and the kids went out to lunch on Monday the 20th, and then took off to Utica on a shopping trip that afternoon.
And absence did make the heart grow fonder. “Cooperstown is an amazing place,” he said. “I just wanted to get back to Cooperstown.” CCS school board President Tim Hayes lives up Beech Street, and made sure Amy and the kids’ driveway was shoveled every time it snowed.
While Ruffles’ commitment to the Army Reserves continues until mid-2021, he’s fulfilled his overseas responsibilities. (In the last few days, Ruffles predecessor, Dan Crowell, also a reservist, returned from Somalia, and has fulfilled his military commitment.)
Ruffles is taking a couple of weeks R&R, but expects to be back in the county treasurer’s office Monday, Feb. 3, to get acclimated before the county board’s February meeting on the 5th.
He’s already issued an invitation to the three new county board members who took office Jan. 2 – Rick Brockway, Jill Basile and Clark Oliver – to brief them on county finances.
“I met a lot of good people,” he concludes, “and it was a really good experience to see what we have here compared to what they have there.”