Liberian deployment humbles 8th FTS major

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt Jason Bishop
  • Public Affairs
There are a number of things Americans take for granted. Americans are accustomed to flipping a light switch and the light comes on. We also take for granted being able to find food when we are hungry. We don't think twice when we are dirty or thirsty about how easy it is to find clean running water.
However, there is one member of Team Vance who will never take these and many other things for granted again.
When Maj Ryan Jara, assistant director of operations for the 8th Flying Training Squadron, was selected to spend 150 days on temporary duty in Liberia as part of a United Nations peace-keeping mission, he was a bit surprised, he said.
"I talked with my commander," Major Jara said. "He said it sounded like a good thing to try to do, but don't expect to get selected because it's difficult."
After putting a resume together, Major Jara submitted his application to Air Force Personnel Center. It turns out, he was one of three selected out of a field of 25 Air Force officers. Total, the United States sent nine to include three from the Army, two Marines and a naval officer.
Two months after being selected, Major Jara and the other officers were required to attend a two-week individual terrorism awareness course at Fort Bragg, N.C. At this course, Major Jara's training included counter surveillance, defensive driving techniques and how to administer an IV during an emergency medical situation.
"They equipped us with a medical bag," Major Jara said. "They figured the most likely scenario would be us coming across vehicle accidents. They taught us how to apply first aid similar to the Self Aid and Buddy Care that we (Air Force personnel) get on a regular basis."
However the medical training wasn't what was used the most.
"Some of the driving skills came in handy," he said. "There are no driving rules in Liberia, and it's every vehicle for itself. So you have to be an ultra-defensive driver in order to keep from becoming a statistic or being involved in an accident. In terms of being on the road, it can get very dangerous at times."
Major Jara's role in Liberia was of a military observer. As a military observer, the primary mission was to monitor compliance with UN security counsel resolutions. There were several teams of military observers. Each team was comprised of 10 to 12 officers with no two officers originating from the same country.
For the first two-and-a-half months he was there, the teams were stationed out of the capital city of Monrovia because permanent team sites were in the country side.
During this time, Major Jara and the other Americans were living in an apartment in the capital which was described as "very comfortable."
"We actually had a nice apartment with air conditioning, running water and 24-hour electricity," he said. "Because of the 24-hour electricity, it was the best apartment in the city, because most of the homes that you lived in did not have 24-hour electricity."
During that time, Major Jara was also treated to three meals a day. However, after that first two-and-a-half months, he and his team were sent out into the field.
That's when things got "a lot more difficult."
"At first, we were forced out into the field without any logistical support," Major Jara said. "If it weren't for the assistance of the Pakistanis who happened to be camped near the area that we were responsible for, we would have had nothing."
The Pakistanis, who were providing security for Major Jara's team camp, initially provided tents and also toilet and shower facilities, he said. The toilet and shower facilities consisted of a hole in the ground and a bucket of water.
"And they also fed us," Major Jara said. "Which we were very grateful for."
After a couple of weeks, the UN was able to provide tents and generators to power computers and fans.
On a daily basis, the team would patrol communities in their area of responsibilities, Major Jara said. Normally, the patrol would consist of visiting two towns a day. The team had questions on a village profile sheet which needed to be filled out.
The questions asked were the size of the village, whether or not the community has had problems with former combatants, how many homes, how many homes were destroyed, if the community had medical facilities, schools, and also the living conditions of the people.
"We had to find out if they had clean drinking water," Major Jara said. "Most of them did not. Most of the villages we visited were acquiring their drinking water from slow-running streams or stagnant ponds. A lot of the villagers had one set of clothing. Most of them didn't have shoes. Most of them were only eating one meal a day. It makes you very grateful for what you have in being born an American."
Major Jara also spent time as a disarmament officer. As a disarmament officer, he was responsible for the collection, registration and security of weapons as part of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration program. This program encourages former combatants to turn in their weapons.
Former combatants, many of whom are children, are given medical attention, free room and board for four days and the equivalent of 150 American dollars in exchange for a functioning weapon, an unexploded ordinance or 150 rounds of any ammunition. The average salary of a civil servant in Liberia was equivalent to about 18 American dollars a month.
During his time as a disarmament officer, Major Jara collected more than 2,100 weapons and countless rounds of ammunition, he said.
Aside from the United States, the UN was represented by officers from about 30 to 35 other countries, Major Jara said. This presented its own challenge.
"Although all of the officers spoke English to one extent or another," he said. "There were still a few that barely had a survival understanding of the language."
This led to a number of difficulties.
"I found myself trying to interpret English from a Peruvian officer to English for an Ethiopian officer," Major Jara said. "I had to step in and diffuse an argument due completely to a communication misunderstanding."
Overall, Major Jara found the experience of working in a multinational environment to be very valuable and humbling.
"All of the officers spoke at least two languages," he said. "Some spoke three or four languages. I was also extremely impressed with all of the officers on the observer team by their work ethic and how they carried themselves."
The biggest challenge however was being away from home and loved ones.
"I didn't realize being away would be as hard as it was," Major Jara said. "I have a renewed respect for the Navy and security forces."
Above all, Major Jara will view this as a very rewarding experience for one reason in particular.
"Having an opportunity to actually make a difference," he said. "The country of Liberia was completely decimated by 14 years of civil war. In the five months I was there, I saw huge improvements in how the people lived day to day. It was all the result of the United Nations' presence."