Spreading the Word: IMA uses African masks collection to help tell his Air Force Reserve story

Lt. Col. Will Cambardella's collection of African masks draws a crowd at an African fair-trade store in Birmingham, Alabama.

Lt. Col. Will Cambardella's collection of African masks draws a crowd at an African fair-trade store in Birmingham, Alabama.

Cambardella has accumulated 32 masks from 14 different African countries.

Cambardella has accumulated 32 masks from 14 different African countries.

Citizen Airman/Dec. 2017 -- An individual mobilization augmentee with a passion for Africa and the Air Force Reserve has come up with an innovative way to educate people about his adopted continent and why he loves serving there.

Lt. Col. Will Cambardella has served as an IMA public affairs officer at U.S. Africa Command, with headquarters at Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany, since 2010. He has been detached to Special Operations Command Africa since 2014.

“I get to spend five or six weeks a year in uniform, and my Reserve duty has given me the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Africa,” Cambardella said recently during a phone interview from his home in Birmingham, Alabama.

“As I traveled through Senegal, Chad, Niger, Ethiopia and other countries in Africa, I started picking up tribal masks at local markets off the beaten path.”

At the behest of his friends and family, Cambardella pooled all of his masks — at latest count 32 from 14 different countries — and decided to put them on display for people in the Birmingham area.

“My wife, Tara, and I traced the masks to tribe, region and country of origin, and I made arrangements with a friend of mine who runs a local African fair-trade store to put the masks on display there,” the lieutenant colonel said. “The masks exhibit was a huge hit. In addition to the general public, we had local students from elementary and middle schools and university students from Birmingham-Southern College and Air University come in to study the masks.

“It’s fun to see the looks on people’s faces when they see all of the different kinds of masks,” Cambardella said. “Their reactions range from intrigue to awe to puzzlement. You get the range of emotions and tons of questions, a lot of which we can’t answer, and that’s OK. What it does is open up a dialogue about diversity and the different types of people and tribes who exist together in Africa.

“It’s fun for me because I get to share interesting facts about the places where I picked up each mask and the people who live there, but I also get to share my experiences with the military, especially the Air Force Reserve.”

Cambardella began his military career with the Army in 1998 and was part of the initial invasion into Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division. He transitioned to the Air National Guard in 2005 before making the switch to the Reserve in 2010.

“I’m a huge fan of the IMA program, and I take every opportunity I can to tell people about its benefits,” he said. “For me, I get to do all of my Reserve duty in one lump sum, and that’s not as disruptive for my employer as being gone for one weekend every month. Plus, where else would you get the chance to serve in Germany and Africa? I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Cambardella said his current assignment is scheduled to end in January 2019, and he's looking for a new IMA position to move into. However, he plans on continuing his hobby into the foreseeable future.

“My goal is to collect a mask or similar artifact from each of the 53 African countries,” he said. “I’ve started down that path, and I want to stay on it. Putting the masks on display at the fair-trade store was such a hit that we are planning on doing it again in the spring.

“I love being able to tell the Air Force Reserve story through my overseas expeditions with my African masks and educate the local public, students and Airmen.”