News: Liberian soldiers employ training during medical outreach mission
Story by Master Sgt. Brian Bahret
MONROVIA, Liberia – A team of Armed Forces of Liberia soldiers, U.S. service members and county health officials conducted a mobile medical outreach mission in Grand Cape Mount County recently.
The mobile mission held from July 1 to July 4, 2013, was a first for the AFL medics, who, until now, have been focusing their efforts on operating clinics on AFL bases to treat soldiers and their families.
During the AFL-led mission, the medical staff saw more than 2,000 residents in three villages, selected for their remote location and limited access to healthcare facilities.
“This is a big deal for the AFL,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Joshua Latham, Operation ONWARD LIBERTY (OOL) medical adviser deployed from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. He said reaching this point has taken time, time the AFL soldiers needed to increase their skills.
The medical outreach mission reinforced the AFL’s capabilities after years of training with U.S. service members deployed to Liberia with OOL, said Latham.
OOL advisers have been mentoring the AFL since 2010. OOL provides mentorship to the AFL to produce a capable, respected force able to protect Liberian interests in the West African region. In addition, the OOL is developing the leadership capabilities of the officers and noncommissioned officers to maintain a professional and credible military force with a reputation as a “force for good” among the Liberian people.
“As the AFL has grown over the last several years, they have been able to treat their own folks at home and their dependents,” said Latham.
After achieving the skills required to operate a clinic, “then you can begin operations to serve other people, whether it be other nations or individuals within your nation that are in crisis or in need,” said Latham. “Now they’re beginning to start the outreach portion where they’re able to affect the community around them.”
In addition to 10 AFL soldiers, four OOL service members joined the team for logistic and medical support.
“While the AFL is capable to do this on their own, when you have somebody there who’s been through it and who has a vast amount of experience in doing that kind of work, you feel a little more comfortable, a little more confident,” said Latham, who has conducted medical outreach missions in Mexico, Guyana and Thailand. “It’s always better to learn from somebody who’s been there before than to do it by trial and error.”
Dr. Josiah George, AFL chief medical officer, said the team saw a full spectrum of conditions.
“We saw challenging cases, skin conditions, sexually transmitted diseases,” he said. “We saw the need, the volume and the load of malaria still prevalent in the country especially among children … we also saw other conditions that really caught our attention.”
Samuel Davies said the medical outreach was the first he has seen as a seven-year resident of Gondor Town. Lacking the qualified support, the villagers were left to their own devices.
“The last time I had a serious issue with my stomach, I tried to treat it for four days – it got worse,” said Davies. He was forced to take a motorcycle taxi to the nearest clinic, a four hour drive over a dirt road. Most villagers can’t afford to take the trip, he added.
“Could you imagine how difficult it is for someone who is sick having to travel on a motorcycle for that amount of distance? People die before they get to the hospital,” he said.
He said he appreciated the outreach team’s efforts. “The emotion for me today … I’m going to sleep beautifully and I’m going to sleep sound because I saw (the team) here.”
Julias Garbo, County Health and Social Welfare Officer, also accompanied the team. He said the outreach was necessary since many villages don’t have access to healthcare or medical facilities. Travel to the villages is limited to single-lane dirt roads often damaged by rain, and in many of the villages there is no communication.
“This outreach has brought a great relief to this neglected part of the population of Grand Cape Mount living in this forest area,” he said.
He said the Ministry of Health will continue working with the AFL to conduct more outreach missions as the ministry strives to improve medical care across Liberia. He added the ministry is currently training more medical providers and is developing a plan to build more facilities.
“We can help bring relief to those people until the government can build health facilities that will meet the needs of those people,” said AFL Pvt. 1st Class Amos Tandanpolie, an HIV and AIDS counselor who traveled with the team.
Born in Grand Cape Mount County in 1983, Tandanpolie is the son of a former gold miner. When his mother died, he moved to Monrovia to live with his aunt, a nurse, and uncle, a doctor. It was there he developed an interest in the medical field, and, since joining the military six years ago, he said he has received a lot of medical training.
“I feel humbled that I can come back to my people and give to them what I have learned,” he said. “To come back and serve my people in a positive manner, I feel overwhelmed.”
Tandanpolie said the outreach also improved the AFL’s image which was damaged during Liberia’s civil war.
“During the war, whenever these people saw someone in uniform, it indicated trouble, especially within the mining communities,” he said. “They knew they were going to be terrorized; they were going to be harassed to give money or minerals.”
Since the war, the AFL has been reshaped to be a force for good, he said.
“This time we were friendly and smiling and giving out free medication that cost a lot of money,” Tandanpolie said. “The people have accepted that the AFL is a force for good. Looking at the interaction between the locals and the military personnel, you see that it’s a different, new picture that we’ve created. We are here to serve them instead of the other way around.”
He said the training and support that OOL has provided has enabled the AFL to begin outreach missions.
“All this knowledge these guys have given to us,” said Tandanpolie. “I am deeply convinced because that had it not been for their support with the knowledge that they have passed on, I wouldn’t have been where I am today.”
As the AFL’s chief medical officer, George said he was proud of the soldiers and added that the outreach helped dispel the notion that the men and women currently serving in the AFL “are just ordinary soldiers like before.”
He said seeing the soldiers in action helped the people understand the extent of the professionalism the new AFL has acquired.
“They were very impressed to see military nurses and doctors actually in the field carrying on military medical activities and services,” said George. “They were quite surprised, and that gave them a new impression of what the new AFL is all about.”