AFRL engineer serves international effort in Liberia
Capt. Paul Hrad, Air Force Research Laboratory aerospace engineer (left), meets with the refugee chairman at Solo Refugee Camp in Liberia, to discuss the presence of Ivory Coast military generals and mercenaries within the population. (Ethiopian Air Force/ Maj. Fasile Ali Gupta)
by Holly Jordan
3/20/2012 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Engineer Capt. Paul Hrad knows firsthand the meaning of international cooperation, teamwork, and humanitarianism, thanks to a recent deployment to Liberia in support of the United Nations.
Captain Hrad recently returned from a six-month rotation as part of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia. During his deployment as a military observer, he served as the eyes and ears in the field. This job required him to interact closely with the people of Liberia, often traveling long distances through rough terrain and forests to interview tribal chiefs, county superintendents, refugee camp managers, and other local residents and officials.
This type of deployment is rare since there are only a handful of American officers serving on UN peacekeeping missions. To prepare for this deployment, Captain Hrad spent three weeks in Quantico, Va., for pre-deployment training.
"It was some of the best, most relevant training I've received in my military career," said the captain.
At Quantico, he was trained in a wide range of topics from self-defense to diplomacy, to adapting to harsh conditions--all in preparation for the experience awaiting him.
Upon his arrival in Liberia, Captain Hrad joined with a UN team that included military officers from Egypt, Bangladesh, Russia, Pakistan, Denmark, Serbia, and China. Although the team members each brought different areas of expertise, their main mission was the Liberian people and their culture and needs.
"I tried to talk to as many people as I could," said Captain Hrad.
Some of the issues he would discuss included health, crime, agriculture, schools, and general needs within the tribal communities. He sought to assess the effects of the international community involvement, its benefits, and what changes needed to be made.
Captain Hrad explained how he took on the role of planning routes, transportation, mission planning, security, and seeking out areas and tribes that had not been visited recently. It was there, he said, that the team often learned the most and received the biggest welcome.
As part of the mission, Captain Hrad and the team worked to ensure a safe and secure national referendum and elections. Torn by a recent 14-year civil war, Liberia has been an unstable region. The referendum held during Captain Hrad's deployment was only the second in the country's history, and the national election was the first since 2005.
According to Captain Hrad, he and the team faced many challenges as they tried to accomplish their mission, including cultural and language barriers. The national language of Liberia is English, which Hrad said gave him an advantage over his teammates. However, the people of Liberia speak Pidgin English, which is often difficult to understand. Captain Hrad said an interpreter often traveled with the team to help them communicate more effectively.
Another challenge was the harsh terrain and lack of infrastructure. Beyond the capital city of Monrovia, Captain Hrad described roads as virtually nonexistent, and the team often found themselves flying over rainforests with limited landing spots and motoring through deep mud pits.
Most Liberians live in sparse conditions, and even clean drinking water is often a luxury. Captain Hrad said for him and the team members, living quarters were tight and water purification was a must.
Despite the many challenges, his experience in Liberia was a rewarding one and the job took him far beyond his usual experiences as an aerospace engineer. As part of the UN team, he said he learned about leading and motivating people, while developing a greater appreciation for the role of the U.S. internationally. Captain Hrad expressed that he came away from his experience with a greater sense of achievement, witnessing firsthand the benefits of building relations with people from other cultures.
"One of my greatest accomplishments was achieving my goal of properly representing the
United States within the UN context and toward the Liberian people, as each one of us are unofficial ambassadors," Captain Hrad said.
For him, serving as an ambassador meant respecting the people, behaving honorably, and setting a positive example for others to follow.
Captain Hrad is looking forward to his next assignment, but his experience in Liberia was one that he will carry with him for the rest of his life.