SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. - A Michigan Air National Guard member has helped to pave the way for a new partnership between the Michigan National Guard and the Armed Forces of Liberia.
Air Force Master Sgt. Leslie Blanks returned to Michigan Jan. 6, after a six-month deployment to the African nation where he worked closely with his counterparts in the Liberian military. As Blanks adjusts to life back home, a detachment of 21 Michigan Army National Guard Soldiers are about to depart for a year of duty in Liberia.
"Their country is coming back from a civil war," Blanks said. "The majority - the big majority - of … people are eager to see Americans and are very friendly."
Michigan's National Guard recently became a partner with Liberia via the National Guard's State Partnership Program, where 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 already 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 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 prior to 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 are 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 the Liberian recovery from civil war.
Operation Observant Liberty will "train Liberian forces on how to be an army," said Army Col. Pablo Estrada, 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."
"I really enjoyed working as an instructor and sharing my knowledge with the ALF soldiers," Blanks said.
The Michigan master sergeant said he also learned a few things while working alongside his ALF colleagues.
"Don't take things for granted is one thing. We have things in America that others only dream about," he said. Another lesson learned was to be willing to "step outside of the box."
"We heard that all the time. There is more than one way to do things," he said. "They often had simple, creative ways to solve challenges."
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 levels of humidity during much of the year.