News: Michigan National Guardsmen foster Liberian military growth
Story by Master Sgt. Brian Bahret
MONROVIA, Liberia – Ten years after Liberia’s civil war, the African country continues to rebuild its military, and Michigan National Guardsmen are making a significant impact in the rebuilding process.
Michigan National Guardsmen entered a partnership with Liberia in 2009 as part of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. In February 2013, the Guard deployed its current rotation of soldiers to Liberia with Operation ONWARD LIBERTY to mentor the Armed Forces of Liberia’s 1,900 soldiers.
“It’s a privilege to have a lot of Michigan soldiers as mentors; it’s very important for the AFL,” said AFL Capt. Kezelee Gwesa, 23rd Brigade operations and plans officer. “We adjusted from a war situation, and now there’s a new army.”
The AFL has existed for approximately seven years in its present form. The original AFL was disbanded and reformed following the conclusion of Liberia’s civil war, which was comprised of two separate conflicts spanning a 15-year period.
Since 2009, a joint team of U.S. servicemembers, including the Michigan National Guardsmen, have deployed with OOL, a U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa-led operation comprised of joint U.S. service members, to mentor and advise the Armed Forces of Liberia in order to develop a national military that is responsible, operationally capable, and respectful of civilian authority and the rule of law. OOL's goal is to assist the AFL in building a professional and capable military force that can effectively contribute to the overall security environment in Liberia.
“Our joint team of mentors works hand-in-hand with our AFL partners every day to build on the gains made by previous mentor teams and to continue the AFL’s growth and development,” said U.S. Marine Corps Col. David Thompson, OOL officer in charge. “Through the strong partnership we’ve cultivated, we’re helping the AFL grow in confidence, capability and professionalism. The AFL is a dedicated and motivated force for good that the Liberian people can be proud of.”
He said he’s proud of the Michigan National Guardsmen and their contributions to the AFL and Liberia.
“They’ve made a lasting impression on the AFL, and their efforts have significantly increased the AFL’s ability to protect its borders and contribute to regional stability,” said Thompson.
The Michigan Guardsmen are divided among AFL units at three locations: Headquarters AFL Staff, Barclay Training Center; 23rd Brigade, Edward Binyah Kesselly Military Barracks; and the Armed Forces Training Command, Camp Ware. Additionally, the OOL mentors regularly travel to Camp Tubman, Camp Todee and the Liberian Coast Guard Base, which falls under the AFL, to provide mentorship.
“We, as an institution, really need the mentorship from their experience,” said Gwesa, a seven year AFL veteran. “It has been helpful for the Armed Forces of Liberia to have (the mentors) here providing their guidance and experiences for us, which we really appreciate.”
Maj. Allen Smith, OOL brigade advisor and officer-in-charge for the Michigan National Guard, said the U.S. Army soldiers’ collective combat and peacetime experience is extremely valuable to the AFL. Most of the mentors have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What we’ve experienced in war does apply toward peace, especially when it comes to training,” he said.
He added that U.S. mentors offer the AFL soldiers guidance on a gamut of subjects including infantry techniques and tactics, officer and enlisted professional development, logistics, personnel administration and training, recruiting, communications, and military police operations among others.
Smith said the OOL mentors’ efforts have enabled the AFL help secure Liberia’s borders.
Mentors helped the AFL plan and train for multiple iterations of Operation Restore Hope, a collaborative effort between Liberian security forces and the Ivory Coast’s to secure the border shared by the two countries. To ensure the operations were a success, the mentors helped the AFL design and execute multiple exercises leading up to the deployments.
“The mentors come up with the ideas because they’ve been in the game for a long time,” said Gwesa. “They have theater experiences, and we tap into those experiences to get our guys on their game for deployment.”
Smith said the most notable contributions of the Michigan National Guardsmen to the OOL mission was their help with the training and buildup prior to the AFL’s deployment of a platoon to Mali to support the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.
“We were heavily involved in the design and the requirements and the evaluation for the AFL platoon that went to Mali,” he said.
The deployment was the AFL’s first international mission in more than 50 years. As a testament to the AFL unit’s success, the UN asked the platoon to extend their commitment from six months to a year, added Gwesa.
“The response from their performance of duty there has proven that we are doing tremendously well for them,” said Gwesa. “I applaud the mentors, our chain of command and Headquarters Armed Forces of Liberia for giving our guys the requisite training internationally accepted in Mali.”
Smith said he appreciates working with the AFL soldiers and hopes the Guard’s relationship with Liberia continues.
“There’s a direct tie from West Africa to the United States and to Michigan,” said the Plainwell, Mich., resident. “Our relationship is a long lasting partnership. There are a lot of people here who have ties to Michigan and also some of the other States. In the United States, there is a dynamic of people who have emotional ties to Liberia, and I think those ties should be enduring.”
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Smaltz, OOL military police enlisted advisor, said Michigan’s enduring ties with Liberia have helped in his role as a mentor.
“The fact that we all come from Michigan, they all know where it is, and that they know it’s our organization has really helped us,” said Smaltz, who deployed from the 1st Battalion, 177th Regiment Regional Training Institute, Fort Custer, Mich. “It’s an ongoing partnership that they recognize. It puts you on common ground with them a lot quicker, and it’s a talking point that opens a conversation quickly.”
He said the common ground has helped bridge the cultural gap and, as a result, he has a much deeper appreciation for the rebuilding process and of the AFL’s accomplishments.
While the United States has been involved in conflicts around the world regularly, relatively few of its citizens have been directly impacted by war. Smaltz said Liberia’s civil war has impacted most its citizens, and it remains fresh in their minds.
“One of my investigators was a child soldier during the war,” said Smaltz. “Hearing some of his stories puts things into perspective.”
The investigator’s parents were killed by a rebel group and he was absorbed by a group of child soldiers.
“He was alone and had no choice but to link up with them and fight,” said Smaltz. “Quite a few guys have similar stories. A couple of the guys were refugees and took off out of the country. One of the guys spent seven years out of the country before he came back.”
Smaltz said he’s learned to appreciate the stability the United States offers much more now.
He said he appreciates “knowing that tomorrow my government is not going to collapse … here, they’ve seen a few governments come and go. To them it’s a very real thing. We may talk about it, but we know it’s safe and we’re fine … our government is still going to be here tomorrow. They don’t know that.”
And while the government has made great strides since the country’s civil war, Liberians are still concerned with the future, Smaltz said. “Nothing to them is certain.”
However, he said, the AFL soldiers don’t give up.
“They’re building bridges and overcoming animosity … if they have the capability to complete what you train them to do, they’ll do it,” said Smaltz.
Despite the challenges that may have arisen due to Liberia’s past, the AFL soldiers are actively seeking opportunities to learn and excel in their military profession.
“You can’t just come here with some basic knowledge and expect to teach them,” said Smith. “You have to come here with advanced knowledge and have experience in matters of training to have a positive impact here.”
Fortunately, the Michigan National Guardsmen are equipped with years of mentorship experience – they’ve shared a partnership with Latvia for 20 years. Smith said Liberia is “following the same model as the Latvians … and that’s blossomed into a very fruitful relationship. We hope to see the same type of strategic relationship here where we see more Michigan National Guardsmen coming to Liberia and we see Liberians come to Michigan for training too.”