Operation United Assistance
The initial stages of the joint response to the Ebola outbreak in fall 2014 were dynamic and full of uncertainty, as Civil Engineers from the U.S. Air Force who deployed from Europe to West Africa at the onset of Operation United Assistance quickly discovered.
By Capt. Steve Mackinder, P.E., M.SAME, USAF, and Capt. Holly A. Bigelow, M.SAME, USAF
The Gbediah Ebola Treatment Unit, shown in December 2014, was the final unit scheduled to be built with Joint Forces Command – United Assistance. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. TERRANCE D. RHODES, JOINT FORCES COMMAND – UNITED ASSISTANCE PUBLIC AFFAIR
On Sept. 16, 2014, President Obama announced plans to send 3,000 American servicemembers to Liberia in support of Operation United Assistance, a mission to contain the worst Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in history.
Preparation for this deployment began immediately. By Oct. 10, 11 Air Force Civil Engineers from around Europe were on the ground in Monrovia, the capital city. These engineers were dispatched to construction sites throughout Liberia to serve as contracting officer’s representatives, intended to “bridge the gap” between their relatively quick mobilization and the slower deployment process needed for their replacements, the 36th Engineer Brigade from Fort Hood, Texas. Once on the ground, it quickly became clear the airmen were needed for more than contract development and management.
DEMAND FOR EXPERTISE
The initial stages of the U.S. response to Ebola were dynamic and full of uncertainty. The first American unit to arrive was HQ U.S. Army Africa. The engineering requirements, however, quickly grew beyond the capabilities of its limited engineer staff. This led to projects being initiated that had minimal design and scope definition. With plans and requirements constantly changing, multiple Air Force engineers had to take on a project management role on construction work that was already ongoing.
One of the largest problems that engineers faced during Operation United Assistance was the continuous influx of new troops. The first task Air Force engineers were given was the management of two beddown sites for the thousands of Army troops due to arrive. Both sites had been planned expediently and neither had a dedicated project manager. The team of airmen engineers was able to assign project managers to both the Barclay Training Center, which was to become headquarters for the 101st Airborne Division, and the Aerial Port of Debarkation site at the airport. Each of the projects consisted of Army Force Provider tents erected on foundations of crushed rock.
The two-man team assigned to the Barclay Training Center faced numerous challenges as the training center is an active Armed Forces of Liberia installation. The team ended up living on site so they could maintain 24-hour operations. On two occasions, the airmen had to arrange hasty entry control points when construction equipment knocked a gate off of the perimeter wall and, in a separate incident, knocked down part of the wall. The team assigned to the Aerial Port of Debarkation faced a long daily commute and a site that was built on swamp land, which took much longer than anticipated to elevate above flood level.
Air Force engineers also were utilized in a project management role to build a medical center in Monrovia. The Monrovia Medical Unit, which was staffed and maintained by the U.S. Public Health Service, was a tent complex constructed from a system donated by the Air Force for use as a treatment facility for healthcare workers who contracted or may have contracted Ebola. The tents were erected by Air Force medical personnel from Langley AFB, Va. Additional timber structures were built by U.S. Navy Seabees forward-deployed from Djibouti. This high-visibility project epitomized the joint nature of Operation United Assistance and drew visits from notable leaders including the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia and the President of Liberia.
CRITICAL RUNWAY REPAIR
The airmen engineers also played a vital contracting and advisory role in runway repair. There is only one runway in Liberia with the size and strength to handle the volume and type of aircraft delivering aid every day. Months of heavy use, including 747s and C-17s had worsened the condition of an already deteriorated pavement.
Two sections in particular required immediate repair, including one directly in the wheel path that had a pothole with a lip more than 1-in deep. Due to the constant arrival and departure of aircraft, repair work could only be completed at night. Compounding the issue, the subcontractor was hampered by insufficient equipment and a crew inexperienced in airfield repair. This resulted in an inadequate fix that needed to be redone. The second repair was put on hold until the subcontractor could demonstrate its process improvements.
Patient shower and latrine facilities built by Armed Forces of Liberia engineers at Tubmanburg, Liberia. These structures were framed with lumber and wrapped in plastic tarpaulin for ease of cleaning. PHOTO BY CAPT. ADAM GORZKOWSKI, USAF
CONSTRUCTING TREATMENT UNITS
Not all airmen engineers ended up in a project management role. The primary mission to stop the spread of Ebola was through the construction of five Ebola Treatment Units (ETU). Four engineers were assigned to the ETU team, which visited five sites via U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Ospreys. The team then conducted daily conference calls with the contractor’s design team in the United States, spending numerous hours adapting the standard ETU design to specific sites. There also were multiple design changes made due to inputs from the World Health Organization. In addition, the work was challenged by logistical issues. Road quality in Liberia is extremely poor, which in some cases resulted in trips of up to 12 hours to travel 165-mi. While locally sourced material was used when available, most construction supplies and equipment had to be shipped from Monrovia, resulting in significant delays.
None of the airmen were aware upon arriving that there had been an ongoing U.S. military presence since 2010, with Marines and Michigan Army National Guardsmen having maintained a constant rotation mentoring the Armed Forces of Liberia. When the Ebola outbreak began, both the U.S. servicemembers and the Liberians immediately switched to execution roles. For the Armed Forces of Liberia engineers that meant building two ETUs. The U.S. Marines and Guardsmen supported the efforts, but with only two engineers among them, could not fulfill all the mentoring roles needed on an active jobsite. Air Force engineers were brought in to receive and sign for materials, and also provide mentoring for their international counterparts.
The two ETUs built by the Liberians opened to great fanfare upon completion. The work marked the first operational mission of the Armed Forces of Liberia Engineer Company since its inception and was a great source of national pride.
ENGINEERING CHALLENGES IN LIBERIA
Air Force Civil Engineers overcame many challenges during their time in Liberia. Crushed rock, for instance, was extremely hard to acquire, with only two rock crushers in country and seemingly every project needing it at the same time. Additionally, the rock that was delivered was rarely received on time.
Weather was a constant challenge as well. Even though October heralded the start of dry season, that term only meant that it rained less than the wet season. Many delays and mud pits were caused by sudden and lengthy deluges. Transportation between job sites was another issue. Security concerns spawned policies requiring two people per vehicle and two vehicles for each movement. With only 11 personnel and limited vehicles, this was difficult to overcome.
None of the work completed during Operation United Assistance could have been done without local contractors either. While the contractors did not always have the proper training or equipment, they were always willing to find the extra needed part or make an extra delivery and despite some challenges they performed admirably.
A JOINT EFFORT
Operation United Assistance was the definition of “united.” Each day, Air Force engineers worked with soldiers, sailors, Marines, Public Health Service officers, Defense Logistics Agency and U.S. Agency for International Development personnel, and Armed Forces of Liberia engineers.
Working with servicemembers and civilians from all these organizations was not just beneficial, but enlightening. It also was very rewarding to contribute to a mission that helped bring to an end an outbreak that took the lives of thousands. Humanitarian deployments may be infrequent, but these Air Force engineers found supporting those in need around the globe to be an impactful experience.