Michigan Soldiers make an impact in Liberia

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LANSING, Mich. — The seemingly perpetual summer and constant onshore breeze of Liberia’s coast strike a stark contrast to the grey skies and biting wind of Michigan’s late Fall.

For months at a time— sometimes even a year— Soldiers from the mitten state come to this sub-Saharan country, uniforms on their shoulders and expertise running through their veins. That experience may be more valuable now than ever, as the extent of the Ebola virus puts the Armed Forces of Liberia— those men and women the Michigan Soldiers are there to mentor and train— to the test.

In 2009, Liberia became Michigan’s partner in the U.S. Department of Defense sponsored State Partnership Program. The Michigan Soldiers currently in Liberia are supporting both Operation Onward Liberty, a five-year-old program with the intent of advising and mentoring the Armed Forces of Liberia, and the SPP to build a continuing partnership between the militaries. Onward Liberty is led by United States Africa Command and the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Africa, but the role the Michigan National Guard Soldiers fill has been vital since the operation began.

Assigned as mentors and advisors to the AFL, Michigan Soldiers lend experience in matters of medical, military police, engineering, and organizational training. Lt. Col. James Robson, now the Director of Public Works at Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, made two such trips to Liberia. The challenge, he says, is to work with the constraints inherent in the AFL, like money shortages.

“We spent two days on the ground, walking from building to building to building, showing them all the things they could be working on that didn’t require money or resources,” says Robson. “It required manpower and elbow grease.”

Robson’s group specialized in facilities management, though Michigan Soldiers bring a wide variety of expertise to the impoverished country.

“Michigan Army National Guard Soldiers bring an array of skills as citizen-soldiers where they have a combination of both their civilian careers as well as their military skills,” says Marine Col. David Bunn, the officer in charge of Operation Onward Liberty. “These military specialties have allowed them to also provide medical care, force protection, and camp improvement services for Operation Onward Liberty personnel.”

The Liberian soldiers, adds Robson, are ready to learn and receptive to mentorship.

“One of the things that impressed me was their discipline,” says Robson. “I never once saw someone in a dirty uniform or without shiny black boots or without a good haircut. They have nothing, so they obviously had the discipline to somehow make that happen in an environment that doesn’t offer a way to do that.”

Recently, the outbreak of the Ebola virus has changed the operational landscape, but, according to Bunn, not the purpose of the U.S. Soldiers’ presence in Liberia.

“The role of Onward Liberty and the Michigan National Guard has not changed due to the Ebola Viral Disease, but the focus of the AFL has changed from a training environment to more operational in support of the country of Liberia with treatment facility construction, security, and community support,” says Bunn. “This has changed the look of what Operation Onward Liberty does but not the mission.”

Bunn adds that the AFL still conducts their own operations and the role of Onward Liberty is still to mentor and advise as the situation develops.

Lt. Col. Theresa Brown, Michigan National Guard officer in charge of operations, echoes this sentiment, saying Michigan’s Soldiers are in Liberia as mentors only, and have even taken some basic precautions for safety, like minimizing person-to-person interactions.

“We’re continuing to support our Liberian partners and doing everything to keep our Soldiers and their families safe,” says Brown.

For now, the Michigan personnel in Liberia are those operating with Operation Onward Liberty, as State Partnership Program activities have been put on hold.

Story by Capt. Doug Halleaux, 126 Press amp Headquarters
U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Brian Bahret