Life in Liberia: Unique challenges, high rewards

Published March 4, 2015
After turning over the last of 10 Ebola treatment centers in January, U.S. military task force members have begun withdrawing from West Africa as new cases of the disease tail off to virtually zero in Liberia.

Nearly all troops and civilians supporting Operation United Assistance will be back at their home stations by the end of April, the Department of Defense announced recently. That includes U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District’s Forward Engineer Support Team-Advanced, which, for the time being, remains an integral part of theater-closure planning and consolidation with the mission drawing to an end.

By all accounts, however, it’s been a deployment unlike any other for the FEST.

Liberia isn’t the war zone some members saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s still a rugged environment.

“It really does feel like early Iraq to me,” said Maj. Michelle Dittloff, the FEST commander. “The living conditions are quite similar to the earliest FOBs [forward operating bases]. Nobody is shooting at us, but it’s very remote and austere.

“In Iraq and Afghanistan, I think everybody knew we were going to be there for a while. Our job here was to get in, do the mission and get back out.”

Since its formation in 2008, Europe District’s FEST-A has deployed to Afghanistan and Jordan. The team also participated in exercises in Uganda, Niger, Germany, Italy, Alaska and California.

Dittloff called Barclay Training Center “one of the more austere environments” a FEST detachment has encountered. The task force base camp in the Liberian capital of Monrovia has been the team’s home since it departed Wiesbaden, Germany, last October.

“In past deployments, our personnel stayed on fully functional bases with permanent buildings,” she said. “We’re living in the same tents as the Soldiers, sometimes eating MREs [meals-ready-to-eat], using containerized latrines and showers. That presents some morale challenges. … It probably isn’t what they’ve typically seen, even in Afghanistan or Iraq.”

Jennifer McCarthy, a New England District environmental scientist, noted a "land of contrasts" shortly after arriving in Liberia.

“It has spectacular natural resources — the Atlantic Ocean, the forests and swamps and hills, the cool ocean breeze in the midst of sweltering heat and choking humidity,” she wrote in an email. “Once you get away from Monrovia, it is miles and miles of lush, green tropical foliage, interspersed with reddish mud brick and thatched or tin-roof villages. The city, though, is choked with people, houses, motorcycles and trash. We see street markets on every corner, marked by bright beach umbrellas shading the sun. They sell fresh produce, clothes and shoes, and liter jars of gasoline.”

Buses carrying up to 20 extra passengers and motorcycles with three or more people on board are common sites around the capital, along with tuk-tuks, or auto rickshaws, Dittloff said.

“Donkey carts haul construction material down the same roads as cars and buses,” she added. “Traffic lights mostly don’t exist, and rarely work when they do.”

McCarthy said the FEST found schools closed and many foreign businesses shuttered early in the mission, their proprietors fleeing from Ebola. Almost without exception, Liberians were happy to see the U.S. military and civilian responders.

Safety protocols are still paramount and personnel take every precaution to avoid exposure and risks, Dittloff said.

“We’re very safe here. They keep us isolated from the general population. The only time we encounter people is when we go out to the work sites,” she added.

Liberia’s heat and humidity are another matter – the FEST commander says she’s dropped 10 pounds on the deployment.

The USACE engineer team is part of a DOD contingent that delivered critical lifesaving resources, built Ebola treatment units, trained hundreds of local and international health care workers, and provided logistical support to humanitarian and public health officials who provided care throughout West Africa, Pentagon officials said.

Back at Barclay Training Center, the FEST made life a little more comfortable for the U.S. and international partners in charge of Operation United Assistance, as well as the Joint Force Command. At the epidemic’s height, 2,800 DOD personnel were deployed to West Africa.

“The FEST-A has been a great asset to our efforts,” said Lt. Col. Lee Hicks, JFC-United Assistance engineer for the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). “The Corps of Engineers did great work setting up generators and getting infrastructure up and running at the base and the site where the JFC headquarters was located. They figured out some shortcomings and made sure we had power 24/7.”

Since the outbreak began, Ebola has killed nearly 9,000 people and infected about 22,000 in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to recent World Health Organization statistics.

But in the first week of February, Liberia tracked just five new cases, a sharp decline from the more than 300 new infections estimated weekly in August, various media outlets reported.

“Locals have started to come out of their homes and the streets are far busier than when we first arrived,” said Stephen Lahti, a FEST-A mechanical engineer. “Everyone in this country is incredibly happy, and anyone you interact with always gives you a smile and a welcome greeting.”

McCarthy said she also notices a radically changed environment since the operation’s early days.

“Ebola is clearly in retreat in Monrovia and business appears to be revitalizing,” she added. “The streets are crowded, and children are [returning] to school. And they’re still happy to see us.

“Our car was bumping slowly along a heavily rutted road the other day, and two small children came running after us, waving and saluting. We stopped the car, rolled down the windows and saluted them back. Their grins were heartwarming.”

Lahti said he expected to depart Liberia and return to New England District by the end of February. A few other individual FEST members could also leave sooner than the entire team as mission demands decrease.

“Even though the days are long, being part of this operation has been an incredible experience,” Lahti said. “It’s been extremely rewarding on both a personal and global level – I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Having the opportunity to use my education and experience to benefit the greater good and the people of this country is something very rare.”