Help Wanted: Stories from Distribution in West Africa

By Emily Tsambiras DLA Distribution Public Affairs

A 23-year retired Marine, Peter Todd wasn’t worried about finding his way in a third-world country. Describing himself as flexible, he was confident that wherever DLA sent him, he’d be able to succeed.

A member of the DLA Distribution expeditionary team for seven years, Todd assisted in major projects for the organization such as the DLA Distribution Warner Robins, Ga., transition from a contractor-operated to government-run operation, Exercise Balikatan in the Philippines, missions in Kuwait and Afghanistan, and humanitarian assistance operations for Hurricane Ike in Texas.

He says that while he was a bit nervous to enter an environment where a somewhat mysterious and highly-communicable disease was running rampant, he knew that, ultimately, he would fare well in the mission, which was still unknown.

Todd’s original deployment plan had him head for the CONUS Replacement Center in Fort Bliss, Texas, for his obligatory medical checks one week out from his scheduled arrival in West Africa.

However, he received a phone call two days before he was to report to the CRC, requesting that he board a plane to Germany that afternoon. Unsure of the next steps, he quickly planned for a possible six-month deployment and informed his family of the change in plans.

“I was apprehensive, not knowing all the facts about Ebola, and I still didn’t know what my role would be once on the ground in Africa. I also didn’t know whether I’d be sleeping in tents or indoors- everything was an unknown. I arrived in Manheim and got my shots and country clearances. Soon after, I landed in Monrovia to await the rest of my team and my first task.”

After linking up with the team’s officer-in-charge, he learned of DLA Distribution’s mission and the challenges the team was currently facing. More warehouse space was needed because what the team currently had would not be adequate for the amount of incoming materiel.

Additionally, access to the main port where most of the materiel would be received was an issue. The process for obtaining port access required a request to the U.S. embassy, which was then pushed to the Liberian government for approval; a process that needed repeated on a bi-weekly basis.

Once the other members of the team arrived in-country, Todd was tasked with managing incoming inventory. With daily tasks including the loading and unloading of trucks, forecasting materiel arrival, and inventorying materiel by hand onto an Excel spreadsheet, he says the days were long and arduous. “Items were coming in from different directions, in different quantities and varying conditions. We would count everything up, check the paperwork, and then input everything manually. We had no idea when anything would arrive. We might have 2000 boards of lumber anticipated to arrive, and 1200 would come today, and another 800 tomorrow. We had to be flexible; this was life in a third world country.”

Another difficulty for Todd and his team was unloading trucks. Locally-sourced materiel such as cinder blocks and lumber didn’t arrive packaged in a way that made for easy handling. “We unloaded items hand to hand, one at a time. It was extremely strenuous.”

Amplifying the laboriousness, warehouse conditions were not ideal for the men. Humidity hung in the air inside the iron warehouses, which contained no ventilation. Todd says when local trucks backed up to the only two bay doors, the noxious fumes filled the enclosure, creating furnace-like conditions.

A small relief came, says Todd, when the decision was made to implement DLA’s main warehousing system, Distribution Standard System, to begin tracking materiel. “Once implementation was complete, we were able to create Materiel Release Orders, and inventory and materiel visibility was much easier.”

To forget the stresses of the long work days over the three-month deployment, Todd says he looked to his teammates, including the local nationals. “We only received one day off, and that was for Thanksgiving. But when we closed down one of our warehouses in Monrovia, it was decided that we would have a thank-you party for the local workers. A few of my peers opted for a pizza and soda party, and it occurred to me that this may not be the local national’s first choice. I asked him to check with our local national friends. With excitement, the locals asked for chicken and rice. We all had a great time celebrating them and their efforts.”

After three months in Liberia, Todd and his teammates transitioned their mission to the Army. The last shipment, Personal Protective Equipment for those working in the ETUs, was to a Forward Logistics Base, part of USAID. DLA Distribution’s work was complete.

“When we arrived, the plan was to not use DSS. The warehouses were empty, and the infrastructure was horrid. Transportation was difficult, and everything was a learning experience for us. We were busy from the first day to the last and we did a great job with what we had to work with. I am very proud of our work, and it wouldn’t have gone as smoothly with a different team,” said Todd.

He says the ultimate gratification came when, after returning home, he received an email from one of his local national coworkers in Monrovia. “The message said that the kids were allowed to return to school. The president had declared Liberia ‘Ebola-free.’ It was a great feeling.”

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.