Help Wanted: Stories from Distribution in West Africa

By Emily Tsambiras DLA Distribution Public Affairs

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If you were flown into a rainforest in one of the poorest countries in the world and tasked with receiving, storing and issuing items to support the construction and operation of treatment units to battle the deadliest Ebola outbreak on record, what would be your first step? 

To aid in your decision, know that the main port for importing items, most of which will be flown in or delivered via ship, is temporarily unavailable due to hang ups in obtaining approval for use; currently, no materiel handling equipment has yet been procured; you have one small warehouse for storage, but you do not know how much materiel you will be receiving; and there are not enough trucks to move the items you will soon have in your possession for distribution. 

Also, manpower is in short supply, the country’s infrastructure is badly damaged from a civil war, you need to inventory all your items by hand, and it’s going to rain every day.  Sound like a logistical nightmare?

Lastly, factor in the obvious: you have to be away from your family, for an indeterminate amount of time, in a potentially dangerous environment.

Have you decided on that first step? 

Ultimately, 28 DLA Distribution team members readily accepted that challenge, and, without a moment’s hesitation, immersed themselves in the planning and execution stages of a task that seemed nearly impossible. 

Within 90 days, the team had set up distribution operations in warehouses located in Liberia and Senegal, created an accountable, manual system to receive, store and issue items, and executed over 1,300 truck transportation missions to assist in the erection of 15 ETUs.  

According to the team, the mission wasn’t easy, but, despite its challenges, was worth it.  Here are the personal accounts of several of those team members.

United States Marine Corps Maj. John Simpson: Officer in Charge

Unlike many of his fellow teammates, Simpson did not have to go to West Africa; he volunteered. 

A strategic planning officer within DLA Distribution headquarters’ Future Plans directorate, Simpson is not a member of DLA’s expeditionary team.  Rather, when the mission arose in September 2014, he simply decided he needed to contribute to the team, had the deployment approved by his boss, and prepared to leave without many details of the trip upon which he was embarking.

Despite an initial lack of mission analysis and concept of operations, Simpson says he knew deploying was the right thing to do.  “The situation was still developing as I was preparing to leave [for Africa].  Everything was very loose.  Scenarios were changing so fast, and new knowledge was coming in, so the CONOPS was constantly changing; but I love a challenge, and I also knew the situation was critical and people were dying.”

Several years earlier, Simpson had served as the operations officer providing logistics support to Operation Tomodachi, the humanitarian mission to support Japan in aiding those affected by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami; a mission, he says, that had many knowns.  “The U.S. had a good relationship with the Japanese government, so coordination of efforts was straightforward.  While my experience did prepare me for the mission in West Africa, I knew I would be facing many more challenges.”

Emotions were high when he arrived, says Simpson. “Coordination between the Liberian leadership and local entities was still evolving so people were less understanding about our presence.  But in spite of this, the support of the people and government officials was critical to our success and enabled us to focus on the mission at hand.” 

The greatest issue was that the area’s infrastructure was unknown.  “My first objective was to assess capabilities.  While we had an understanding of the mission, which was to support the establishment of the ETUs, I didn’t know if the available storage and transportation options would be adequate.”

Planning for the builds mostly occurred in reverse.  Once the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division came to an agreement with the Liberian government on the dates clinics would be opened in each county, Simpson and his team went to work, pre-packaging items for ETUs based on estimated bills of materiel.

However, with one small warehouse and a trucking contract in place, he had to simultaneously focus on finding more storage space and determining an appropriate number of trucks to have in place for transporting the needed items.  “It was difficult to keep up with the rapidly increasing flow of cargo needed to sustain the ETU builds and arriving forces.”

Keeping the tasks orderly, although difficult at times, was essential.  In total, Distribution was slated to assist in the receipt and delivery of items to support the standup of 30 ETUs.  Two 100 bed hospitals had been established prior to Simpson’s arrival, but moving the items to the build sites was difficult due to the quality of the roads, and the fact that it rained every day made the situation even more frustrating for the team.  Also, a container yard had not yet been secured to serve as a storage area for emptied seavan containers.

To solve the latter issue, luck became a main factor. “I knew I had 500 containers coming in on a ship.  I had been out scouting good land to set up a container yard, when a native Liberian came to our team and said ‘I have to help.  I have 23 acres in Buchanan if you need.’” 

To combat the former, a strong relationship with the local trucking union was essential.  “Once it was determined when an ETU would be going up, my transportation team would get the map and meet with the Liberian trucking union to figure out a path for travel.  Trucks were traveling dirt roads that would frequently get washed out.  Determining alternate paths for delivery was extremely challenging.”

Keeping contact with drivers to track deliveries also proved a challenge.  Despite in country cell towers, if a driver was stuck in the mud and his cell phone battery died or he was out of range, it was extremely difficult to determine where the driver was stranded.  Simpson says the team once lost contact with a 12-truck convoy for two weeks. 

“We were constantly adjusting on the fly.  Sometimes we would send out scouts to see if roads were passable and safe.  Conditions made estimating delivery timelines much more difficult,” said Simpson.

Another issue was finding drivers willing to accept the longer routes to the ETU build sites.  Initially, the trucking contract stated that drivers would be paid per load delivered.  Drivers were hesitant to accept longer routes, knowing they would be paid the same to perform the shorter drives from the port to the warehouses and could ultimately complete more deliveries.  “We requested a change in the contract to state drivers would be paid a daily rate and that there would be two cell phones per truck, significantly reducing the chance of losing a driver while they were on the road and increasing our long-haul drivers.”

Putting out these types of fires was the norm, says Simpson. 

One of the most challenging issues the team encountered was the offload and delivery of a 60-ton Rough Terrain Container Handler, which had to be flown in via a C-17 Globemaster III to accommodate its size.  Initially, the plan was to have a contractor haul the machine from the airport to the container yard, approximately 55 miles away.  When the contractor announced it was unable to accommodate the move, the team was left with a dilemma.  A large order was scheduled to arrive very soon via ship, and the equipment was needed to handle the hundreds of containers that were to be offloaded and stored.

“We decided to road march [the RTCH] from the airport to the container yard.  Obviously, the equipment is not built for this length of travel, but we were slow and methodical in our efforts and, despite several stops to cool the engine, we arrived safely at our destination 6 hours later.  The manufacturer [of the RTCH] was surprised when we told them what their equipment had done.”

Together, the team was consistently overcoming obstacles.  “I was very fortunate the way everything worked out.  Leading civilians was a definite change of pace for me, but I had DLA’s best.”

The work could be frustrating, the hours were long and the team was without the comforts of home, but according to Simpson, when he left Monrovia in early January, he left with a rewarding feeling.  “This is part of who I am and what I do.  I just hope that in a small way, I’ve made an impact that makes the world a better place.”  

“We ended up supporting the construction and operation of 15 ETUs.  To see the locals coming up to you in the streets and wanting to thank you for the work your country is doing to save their people, it was touching.”

During a February 2015 DLA Distribution Town Hall, commander Army Brig. Gen. Richard Dix called Simpson “One of the best logisticians I’ve ever met.”  Simpson, however, humbly denies the title.  “I got lucky.  I couldn’t have accomplished the things I did without my team.  These guys put their lives on hold to go fight the unknown.  They did an amazing job.”

This story is part of a continuing series profiling Defense Logistics Agency Distribution employees who deployed to Liberia to establish distribution operations with the goal of assisting in the receipt and delivery of items supporting the standup of Ebola Treatment Units.