News: U.S. Marine Making a Difference in Liberia
Story by: Nicole Dalrymple
STUTTGART, Germany -- U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Gary Morris' time in Liberia, which originally began as a voluntary six-month assignment, will end in August 2010, 20 months later.
The U.S. military has been providing mentors and advisors to Liberia's security sector reform initiative since 2006, a U.S. State Department-led initiative that has completely rebuilt the military in Liberia, screening tens of thousands of applicants for a 2,000 member force.
A reservist, Morris was serving as a platoon leader in an antiterrorism unit in Billings, Montana, when he decided to accept the assignment as a military advisor in Liberia. Morris arrived in Liberia in January 2009, where for six months he served as a mentor to the 2nd Battalion of the newly formed 23rd Infantry Brigade of the Armed Forces of Liberia. He returned home to Dallas only to receive a call shortly afterward asking if he would come back to Liberia.
Having found his work in Liberia rewarding, Morris agreed to return. He served another two months as a mentor, after which he moved to U.S. Africa Command's Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. In the OSC, he works as the Liberia Defense Sector Reform liaison and assists all U.S. military personnel in Liberia with logistical support.
Morris has learned a lot about Liberia and its people. He has taken the time to talk to people and get to know them. He said the Liberian people will share anything, even open up about the devastating civil war that ravaged the country for 14 years.
"The Liberians, as poor as they are, they try to make an honest day's work," he said. "They'll want to sell you something rather than ask you for something.
"Kids live in poverty and yet they are the happiest kids I've met," Morris said. "They are content with simple pleasures."
He has also observed children to be mature beyond their years.
"Kids here don't get a chance to be kids," he explained. "That's what strikes me. Four and 5-year-olds are out working and earning money for their families."
To Morris, who has a 6-year-old son, "It is a fascinating place and a very humbling place."
Some may think, he is doing enough, but on top of his regular duties, for more than a year, Morris has regularly visited a small Monrovia mud-hut school and has recently started teaching a weekly physical education class at the American International School in Monrovia.
In March 2009, Morris met a group of kids gathered around watching as he offered assistance to an AFL truck that had broken down near Camp Edward Binyah Kesselly Barracks, where the battalion is based. He was approached by their teacher at the Margretia School, who invited Morris to visit. During his visit to the mud hut school, Morris learned that unless the students brought their own food, they didn't get lunch. Perhaps it was Morris' experience as a young child in Jamaica, walking to school in his bare feet and picking fruit from the trees for breakfast, but Morris knew what was needed for these kids. It was then that he began making regular trips to the school, bringing bags of rice and cooking oil and providing all the items needed to feed the children's lunch.
In an effort to create a connection between the AFL and the school, and hoping others would continue to support the school after he leaves, Morris brought AFL soldiers to the school and invited fellow U.S. military service members to accompany him on his visits.
More recently in January 2010, Morris was invited to teach a single class on exercise and nutrition at American International School in Monrovia. This morphed into a standing appointment every Friday, where he teaches a 90-minute physical education class to 24 students, fourth through ninth grades. Back at home in Texas, Morris, a certified trainer, owns and operates his own personal training and corporate fitness business.
Many of the students at American International School are children of parents serving in Liberia as diplomats or non-governmental organization employees. Some are also children of Liberians who are returning to the country after leaving because of the civil war. The diverse student body represents France, Ghana, Holland, Korea, Lebanon, Liberia, Nigeria, Niger, Sierra Leone, Spain, Syria, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Teachers report noticing a change in the students since Morris started teaching PE. The school's director, Gary Eubank, and his wife Rory, who is the upper school team leader, praised Morris on his interaction with the students.
"They are more attentive in class and have been asking about the nutritional value of snacks and food," said Mrs. Eubank. "The kids love his classes."
"He has set benchmarks," Mr. Eubank explained, referring to the fact that Morris has incorporated the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports into his program. He's encouraging the children to set goals and conducting periodic assessments with the students so they can see how they are improving.
Morris has also engaged the students in leadership activities, having them lead exercises and giving them an example to emulate. In particular, Mrs. Eubank commented on changes she has seen in a 7th grade student from Niger.
"He is a superb student and a bit of jokester," she said. "We've seen him becoming a leader, becoming more serious but still retaining his fun side."
Morris views his time in Liberia as volunteerism. While he misses his son, Morris tells him what he is doing and why it is important.
"The U.S. military is having a very positive impact here in Liberia," he said. The biggest compliment Morris received as a U.S. Marine was when he was leaving the United Nations Mission in Liberia's headquarters in Monrovia and a gentleman told him, "When I see U.S. Marines, it brings me peace."
Morris said the future of Liberia is bright.
"I remember the President telling the AFL that they are the future of Liberia," he said, reflecting on the Armed Forces Day ceremony February 11, 2010. "I can feel the pride they feel [speaking of the AFL], and at the Armed Forces Day, I could feel the pride that Liberians have in their Armed Forces."