Help Wanted: Stories from Distribution in West Africa

By Emily Tsambiras DLA Distribution Public Affairs

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Jason Zeppuhar had been with DLA Distribution’s Expeditionary Team for two and half years and had previously deployed to assist with projects at Portsmouth, Va., and Ft. Knox.  When he heard he was headed to Monrovia, Liberia, he was ready for a new challenge. 

Despite sadness at leaving his newborn son and other small children, with two days’ notice he prepared to head to Texas to receive preventative medicine for his trip to Africa.  The mission was still undefined but Zeppuhar says he wasn’t concerned with what the actual work would be or the danger of the location.  “This is not voluntary.  I signed up to go and I was prepared to go anywhere I was needed.”

He was curious, he says, about the working and living conditions.  “I knew I could be gone for up to six months.  I assumed I would be sleeping in a tent, but had no idea what the warehouse would be like or what type of clothes to pack.”

Once on the ground, Zeppuhar discovered, happily, he would not be sleeping outside.  For the first month or so, he stayed in what he calls the “embassy apartments,” a group of suites attached to the former U.S. embassy in Liberia.  From there, his team moved into condos. 

The warehouse was not such a happy surprise, however.  “It turned out to be four walls and a tin roof that held in the humidity and the diesel fumes released from the trucks we were loading and unloading.”

In addition to the lack of sensory appeal, the warehouse was not laid out well, and the lack of DSS, DLA’s main warehousing system, made receipting, stowing and issuing materiel difficult, says Zeppuhar.  “Initially, we had no stackable storage racks, so storage could only be built out, rather than up, which would have saved space.  Keeping track of items manually was also frustrating.  The locals would be unloading materiel while we tried to get a count.”

He says once the group developed a system for writing out receipted materiel, the process was smoother.  “We’d pick one, consistent name for like items- say ‘gloves,’ for example- and when we were unloading that item, each man knew to put the item into the spreadsheet by that name.”

Another challenge was remaining cautious of avoiding disease.  “I packed mostly shorts and tees, but we were required to be in long pants and long sleeve shirts at the port to keep our bodies covered.  I ended up buying ten shirts for $5 off the street.  We were also constantly washing our hands in chlorine to avoid transmittal.  There were billboards everywhere reminding people to wash their hands.”

One great advantage to serving in the field with the customer, says Zeppuhar, was viewing DLA Distribution’s work from the other end of the supply chain.  “When I first arrived, we were receiving local lumber.  It arrived loose on a dump truck.  We had no supplies to prepare these for issue.  I needed a bander, tape and skids to make the lumber easier to ship out.  I reached back to New Cumberland, and DLA Distribution Susquehanna got me the supplies I needed to get the job done.  It was really neat to see the materiel arrive with New Cumberland labels.  I truly got to see the whole process.”

He says the locals made the trip enjoyable, as well. “We only had one day off.  But that wasn’t an issue for our local workers.  They were doing hard work, but they knew work was limited and were always smiling.  We really wanted to show them how much we appreciated them, so we threw a party before we left and made their favorite meal.  It was the best meal I had the entire trip.”

As Christmas approached, Zeppuhar says he was ready to return to his family.  He left many of his belongings behind, giving away his clothing and air mattress to locals.  Following his 21-day quarantine, he celebrated Christmas with his family in mid-January, presenting his children with the carvings and necklaces he had purchased in Monrovia.

Zeppuhar says he explained the reason for his absence to his children, and, because of their ages, they didn’t fully understand.  But he hopes one day they will.  “I didn’t sign up to pick and choose where the mission is; I did it to help my country.  Everyone that went to West Africa played a great role, remained flexible and didn’t complain.  The whole experience was very humbling.”

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.