LANSING, Mich. - Eight Michigan National Guard Soldiers were to deploy this month to Monrovia, Liberia, for one year in a mission dubbed Operation Onward Liberty-16.
The Soldiers are the sixth team from the Michigan National Guard to serve as mentors to Armed Forces of Liberia Soldiers in support of OOL, a United States Africa Command defense sector reform initiative.
Liberia is also Michigan's partner in the Department of Defense State Partnership Program, which pairs a state's National Guard members with military members from another country to build relationships and conduct military-to-military engagements in support of defense security goals.
It has been 12 years since a peace agreement ended 14 years of civil war in Liberia. OOL-16's objective is to mentor and advise the Armed Forces of Liberia in order to develop a responsible, operationally capable national military that is respectful of civilian authority and the rule of law.
The AFL is guided by Liberia's National Defense Act of 2008 and Operation Onward Liberty was developed to facilitate the initiative.
Although Liberia is not a combat zone now, two Michigan Army Guard officers, Col. Shawn Harris from the Grand Rapids area and Lt. Col. James Flowers from Okemos, who have both served on combat deployments, understand the importance of this mission. They deployed together to Afghanistan in 2007 – 2008 and trained the Afghan National Police while "bullets were flying and mortars were dropping."
"This deployment is unique," Flowers said , "We will focus our efforts primarily on advising brigade and above leadership levels; the AFL chief of staff and the AFL commanding general."
Harris and Flowers will serve as the chief of staff and deputy chief of staff with the men and women selected to mentor their counterparts in the Armed Forces of Liberia leadership.
The U.S. Africa Command's 2015 posture statement recognizes the threat of "terrorist, insurgent and criminal groups that exploit corruption, regional instability and popular grievances to mobilize people and resources, expand their networks and establish safe havens."
"We will work at the most strategic level with the Armed Forces of Liberia leadership and help shape it," said Harris during an interview at the Michigan National Guard's Joint Forces Headquarters where he serves full time as the director of information technology. Harris said their mission in Liberia could be considered "Ph.D.-level" mentoring.
Seven of the Michigan Guard Soldiers are commissioned officers and one Soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Jerome Wren with the Lansing-based 46th Military Police Command, is enlisted.
"Each member of the OOL-16 team will mentor in a specific skill set," said Flowers, who formerly served as the Kalamazoo-based 507th Engineer Battalion commander. "For example, Maj. Ruby will mentor the AFL in personnel management and systems. We will have a hand in mentoring staff and senior AFL leaders in defense and support to civilian authorities."
Although the Michigan National Guard officers will mentor and advise at the senior leadership level, they recognize the importance of having an enlisted Soldier on their team. This will help the AFL understand the value of the noncommissioned officer corps.
"Command Sgt. Maj. Wren is going over to mentor and advise their command sergeant major and their entire NCO chain," said Harris. "This will help the AFL to understand two things; NCOs are the backbone of the Army, and he is my sergeant major and we’re a team, we are going to model what a command group is supposed to look like—the command sergeant major is in the room and in the decision making process."
Flowers identified this as one of the cultural challenges that can be expected when mentoring the AFL.
"Most foreign forces are pretty much officer-led," said Flowers. "The U.S., Great Britain, Canada, and some of the nations involved in the State Partnership Program are the exception and have a strong NCO corps."
"In terms of where Liberia has come in the past three to five years, I think in the past year in particular, Col. Potter and Lt. Col. Wagh and their team have brought it to a new level—they have set the conditions for OOL-16," said Flowers. "They’ve done a lot of work—there's still a lot of work to be done—that's where we come in and pick it up."
Flowers is referring to Michigan Army National Guard Soldiers, Col. Steven Potter and Lt. Col. Ravindra Wagh, who are currently serving as the chief of staff and deputy chief of staff in Liberia with OOL-15. Potter and Wagh were the first team to take the lead responsibilities from the Marine Forces Europe Command, which had been the lead since the onset of the operation in 2010.
Since 2010, Michigan has been cultivating relationships in Liberia through Operation Onward Liberty and the State Partnership Program.
"Michigan now has a history in Liberia," concluded Harris. "When we arrive, we will be really able to focus in on those senior staff officers and make sure systems are in place."
Flowers said that in addition to working with the Liberian senior military leadership, they will also work with U.S. Army Africa and U.S. Africa Command simultaneously to develop a five-year strategy for West Africa as a region and Liberia specifically as a country.
This is the last scheduled iteration of Operation Onward Liberty but Michigan troops will continue to build a global relationship with the Armed Forces of Liberia through the Department of Defense sponsored State Partnership Program.