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Teaching the Healthcare Workers of Liberia

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Hospital Corpsman Third Class Julia Hollingsworth listens to a lecture with her fellow trainers from the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Army at the National Police Training Center in central Monrovia. Hollingsworth went to Liberia in the middle of a healthcare crisis, to teach foreign hospital workers how to survive Ebola. Image by Cheryl Hatch. Liberia, 2014.

Under the right circumstances, there is a certain sweetness about a soldier’s first deployment. The grisly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stripped nearly all of that away, but there was a time when you joined the Army to be all you could be, you signed up with the Navy to see the world, and the lure of exotic ports and foreign lands were sufficient to coax farm boys from Kansas to sail to Cambodia.

Hospital Corpsman Third Class Julia Hollingsworth is fortunate to have this kind of first deployment, though otherwise she doesn’t much resemble that recruiting poster of old. Hollingsworth is 24 years old and grew up in Trinidad. Her family later moved to the United States, and she has since become an American citizen. On her first Navy deployment, she didn’t go on “a float” in the Mediterranean or work in an aid station in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, with the Marines. She went to Liberia in the middle of a healthcare crisis, to teach foreign hospital workers how to survive Ebola.

“I’ve never even taught a class before!” she said, and laughed. “The language barrier was tough. The rhythm of the way they speak here, the way they break up the words, that was similar to Trinidad. But the slang is completely different!”

Hollingsworth worked at the National Police Training Center in central Monrovia, a sprawling compound built by the United Nations and half-abandoned before the US military arrived in October and moved in. A large unfinished basketball court, mercifully shaded, was converted into a mock-up of an Ebola Treatment Unit, and Hollingsworth taught nurses and hygienists how to safely take on and off the many layers of personal protective equipment needed to work with patients.

She thinks the work is important, and she volunteered for the job, which did not sit so well with her wife.

“She wasn’t happy when I got my orders to Liberia,” Hollingsworth said. “We didn’t know much, but once we found out I wouldn’t do any patient care, she wasn’t so worried anymore.”

Her wife is a fire control person on the USS Farragut, a guided missile destroyer, and is set to deploy herself soon on a nine month tour. The two have been married just over a year, and already they’ve spent much of that time apart; some aspects of military life don’t change. Hollingsworth wears a simple black wedding ring, and she occasionally rubs it as she speaks.

Hollingsworth’s tour is wrapping up, as the 101st Airborne Division begins sending forces home. The training for local healthcare workers is complete, and when Hollingsworth and I spoke, she was passing the time, waiting to hear word on when she could go home. She was starting to feel a little stir crazy, as she had only been allowed off base twice, for short “morale” visits, once to a local supermarket to go shopping, and then to the US embassy, to swim in the pool and eat their famous cheeseburgers.

What did she think of Liberia?

“The embassy is very Americanized,” she said, and made a little face. “But Liberia is nice. People say it’s so poor, and it is, but being from a Third World country, I can tell you it’s not that bad!”