Medical NCO offers her expertise in Liberia
December 28, 2009
CAREYSBURG, Liberia - When villagers near Camp Sandi Ware told medics that a six-year-old boy was severely burned by pot of boiling water, Sgt. 1st Dedraf Blash joined Armed Forces of Liberia medics to assist.
The AFL effort was a good way for the Liberian military to show local people that they are there to help, said Blash, a senior U.S. Army Africa NCO who recently spent three months in Liberia where she wore two hats - mentoring both medical soldiers and females serving within the Liberian ranks.
"The Liberian medics offered care as a goodwill gesture to the local community," Blash said. "The boy's family had no money for a hospital."
Inside the village, some two miles down a dirt path, people crowded around Blash. As Cpl. Carroll George, an AFL medic, tended to the boy's burns, small children clung to Blash's gray digital fatigues.
"The smaller ones held on to my legs to the point I could barely take a step," Blash said.
The boy's father, who was also the village chief, explained their curiosity. He told Blash that they had never seen an American woman in the army.
Blash is the first female NCO from U.S. Army Africa to take part in the Liberia Security Sector Reform program, a U.S. State Department-led effort to help build leadership capacity within Liberia's military - a force recently reestablished after years of civil war. Fellow mentors included a U.S. Navy corpsman, a U.S. Marine and several U.S. Army National Guard Soldiers from Puerto Rico.
Blash follows in the footsteps of a fellow female NCO from U.S. Africa Command, Sgt. 1st Class Shawnte Reynolds, who spent four months mentoring female AFL soldiers at Edward Binyah Kesselly barracks outside Monrovia in early 2009.
At first, Liberian soldiers - both males and females - offered Reynolds only stares and double-takes, she said. Reynolds, 39, of Flint, Mich., had to return to soldiering basics, she said.
"I worked to have male AFL troops understand my role as senior noncommissioned officer - and more importantly, have them respect women serving among their own ranks," Reynolds said.
Blash's medical experience paid off when it came to offering ideas to her Liberian counterparts about healthcare and clinical administration. And she learned a thing or two from them, she said.
The AFL medics showed Blash how they diagnose malaria from blood samples on slides.
"In Liberia, the words 'I have malaria' have the same meaning as 'I have a common cold' to us," Blash said.
Working with AFL medics, Blash also created a way to track the clinic's medication. She also helped develop ways for AFL medics to grow.
After initial training, Liberian medics didn't have continuing professional development. To solve that, medics began offering classes every Thursday morning, Blash said. U.S. Soldiers would recognize the weekly instruction, known to them as "sergeant's time training." Soldiers research, prepare and deliver classes to their peers.
"They would cover topics from malaria and typhoid to preventive medicine and trauma," Blash said. "It's something they continue own their own, to maintain standards and also build their own capacity as medics."
Then, in November, Blash and fellow U.S. mentors set up a "rodeo" of military and medical tasks, everything from patient assessments and carrying army stretchers to running with heavy jugs and an obstacles course, Blash said. Teams of three ran the course. Each team had to include one medic and one female soldier.
The main goal of the competition was to instill morale and foster teamwork, Blash said.
"The rodeo challenged Liberian soldiers to undertake basic tasks under pressure and work as a team to be successful," Blash said. "I think they will be talking about this for months and years."
Her experiences continue to resonate with Blash, now back at USARAF headquarters in Vicenza, Italy, where she works in the command surgeon's office. Her love for being an Army NCO is a strong as her love of medicine, she said.
"There's nothing more special than to have someone say 'you helped me be a better person,'" Blash said. "It brings a smile to my face and the words 'mission accomplished' show in my heart."