Airman Builds Partnership in Liberia

  • Published
  • By By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
A Selfridge Airman has helped pave the way for a new partnership between the Michigan National Guard and the Armed Forces of Liberia.

Master Sgt. Leslie Blanks returned to Michigan Jan. 6 after a six-month deployment to the west African nation where he worked closely with his counterparts in the Liberian military. As Blanks adjusts to life back home in Michigan, a detachment of 21 Michigan Army National Guard Soldiers are about to depart for a year's worth of duty in Liberia.

"Their country is coming back from a civil war," Blanks said. "The majority, the big majority, of the people are eager to see Americans and are very friendly."

Michigan's National Guard recently became a partner with Liberia in the State Partnership Program, in which state National Guards partner with nations around the world to exchange ideas, promote democracy and enhance understanding, trust and stability. The SPP was created about 20 years ago to help emerging democracies in Europe after the break-up of the former Soviet Union. Today, the 54 National Guard organizations around the U.S. have 65 global partnerships. Michigan has been a partner with Latvia since the program was first created and numerous visits and exchanges have taken place between the two over the past two decades.

The deployment by 21 Michigan Army Guard soldiers will be the largest visit yet by military members from the Wolverine State to the African nation. Blanks' trip was not organized by the state, but was in support of a similar military partnership.

"My job was to mentor the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and to support the U.S. personnel who were also there," Blanks said.

Blanks is a vehicle operations specialist with the 127th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. He's been with the 127th LRS for about 15 years and served four years on active duty with the Army before that.

Working primarily from two different ALF camps in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, Blanks was part of Operation Onward Liberty. He helped supervise a crew of about 30 Liberian soldiers and also coordinated the transportation needs of the roughly 50 U.S. military personnel, who were split almost evenly between the Marines, Army and Air Force. At times, some of the Liberian convoys he coordinated had as many as 300 vehicles in them.

"The two biggest challenges to personal safety in Liberia were number one, traffic, and number two, malaria," Blanks said.

While malaria can be prevented with medicine, even the most cautious driver could have a challenge in Monrovia.

"It is a city of about a million people and there are no traffic lights," Blanks said." There are no stop signs. There are no speed limits. All of those things were destroyed in the civil war."

As the transportation coordinator, Blanks was generally the first call a U.S. service member made if he or she got into an accident.

"And of course, there's a small percentage of people who are not friendly. So being in a traffic accident could present a safety and security issue," he said.

The Michigan soldiers who are now departing to Liberia will be part of Operation Observant Liberty and will continue to assist Liberia recover from civil war.

Operation Observant Liberty will "train Liberian forces on how to be an army," said Army Col. Pablo Estrada, a Michigan Guardsman who will command the detachment. The training will cover everything from basic infantry tactics to drill and ceremony.

"It's exciting to be in this position where we get a chance to train an army," Estrada said. "... It's not a cakewalk and we know it's not a cakewalk."

About 300,000 Liberians died and 1 million were displaced during the civil war that ended in 2003. The country subsequently held free elections in 2005.

Liberia has a long history with the U.S. The modern state of Liberia was founded in 1847 when freed American slaves returned to Liberia and founded the nation. The capital city, Monrovia, was named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the U.S. and an ardent supporter of the effort. The country is near the equator and is fairly hot with high humid during much of the year.

"I really enjoyed working as an instructor and sharing my knowledge with the ALF soldiers," Blanks said.

The Michigan master sergeant said he learned some things from his ALF colleagues as well.

"Don't take things for granted is one thing. We have things in America that others only dream about," he said.

Another lesson learned: be willing to "step outside the box."

"We heard that all the time. There is more than one way to do things," he said.

As an example, one day the assignment was to wash several vehicles, but Blanks was stymied by a problem with the water system.

"So the ALF soldiers took the cars down to the lake and used buckets of water," he said. "They often had simple, creative ways to solve challenges."