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From the fleet: Lt. helps keeps the peace in Africa as UN observer

Oct. 3, 2013 - 11:43AM   |  
Lt. William Abbott, right, congratulates a Liberian service member after local forces successfully captured a group of smugglers.
Lt. William Abbott, right, congratulates a Liberian service member after local forces successfully captured a group of smugglers. (Ammies Matthews / Courtesy of Lt. William Abbott)
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Lt. William Abbott, center, a member of the Nigerian armed forces and other United Nations peacekeepers leave their helicopter on an air-inserted foot patrol near Tempo, Liberia. Below, Abbott holds a Liberian girl in Pennoken Town. Left, Abbott shares water with Liberian locals in Grand Gedeh County. There are about 120 U.N. military observers in Liberia, according to the U.N. website. (Ammies Matthews / Courtesy of Lt. William Abbott)

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You wake up under the veil of a mosquito net. You fetch water to fill your coffee kettle and CamelBak. You check your gear and treat your uniform with repellant.

You attend the morning brief and read messages from HQ: Two teammates are going on an air-inserted foot patrol, two are going to observe food distribution at a local refugee camp, another two are headed to a remote border crossing point. You wish one another a safe journey and return.

You and your teammate commence your half-day transit on severely degraded roads. While squinting to see through heavy rainfall, you attempt to avoid hidden grooves and submerged potholes. You cross bridges made of logs and planks and pass by shoeless hunters and farmers commuting along the muddy road.

You reach a village so remote its location is given on your map as an approximation. You greet the village chief and offer water and kola nuts. During your village tour, you are greeted by scores of locals with smiles and laughter.

On the way back, you make your regular stop at a security checkpoint and learn from local agents of the possible smuggling of goods or the allocation of a suspected weapons cache in a nearby forest. You report your findings and prepare for the next patrol.

When you finally return to your accommodation, you take a cold shower, enjoy the electricity before it is secured, and check the locks on your doors and windows. You treat your mosquito net with repellant and lay down for the night.

It’s just another day as a United Nations military observer.

For 65 years, the United Nations has deployed military observers, or MILOBs, in various peacekeeping missions around the world. Forward-deployed in teams of about 10 members, MILOBs come from different communities, services and countries. Whether East or West, Army or Navy, infantry or intelligence, surface warfare or aviation, MILOBs are truly the idyllic contingent of U.N. peacekeepers sent to observe and report in troubled regions.

Representing your nation, world

In your team, your commander may come from Nigeria or Bolivia. Your teammates may be from China or Egypt, Pakistan or Ecuador, Nepal or Russia. As a MILOB, you’re not an American, you are the American.

But you’re much more than that. You’re part of a global, recognizable and historic international alliance of frontline U.N. peacekeepers.

U.S. foreign policy mandates a greater diplomatic, development and defensive integration with other nations to ensure lasting peace, stability and security among troubled regions. Our service members wearing blue berets in regions where U.S. forces are not normally found represent the front line of our country’s commitment to lasting peace in those areas.

In 1995, we sent amphibious ships to support Operation United Shield during the crisis in Somalia. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, hospital ship Comfort and a number of other U.S. warships provided a tremendous level of support to the U.N. peacekeepers already on the ground.

There is no doubt that U.N. peacekeeping operations are definitive in U.S. foreign interests and MILOBs are a prime diplomatic, developmental and defensive tier to that interest. Today, there are more than 30 U.S. officers deployed to various U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world — it’s expected to increase to 40 by the end of year.

The operating environment and benefit of being a MILOB are like no other. As an unofficial U.S. military ambassador, you may be the only American that soldiers and civilians from other contributing nations work with during their careers. Local men, women and children smile at you and chant “I love America” when you pass them in your white U.N. vehicle.

To be a MILOB means you’re taking on a joint, isolated assignment that provides the appropriate credit for the experience. It sounds like a great deal to break away and represent our Navy and country in the U.N., right? Well, a MILOB’s duty does come with its unique personal and professional responsibilities.

You may lead patrols deep into sub-Saharan jungles to remote border crossing points only accessible by foot or helicopter. You may visit refugee camps and provide detailed observation on their security, stability and operation. You will interact with local governing and developmental officials and be the frontline representative for the U.N. While you may be the face of the Navy in traditional joint assignments, you are the face of America and the world community as a MILOB.

Unlike being stationed back home or deploying on a traditional individual-augmentee tour, MILOBs have little or no access to U.S. military infrastructure. With no restaurants or galleys around, MILOBs are responsible for attaining their own food and water. With regiments of armed troops situated on operating bases, MILOBs are unarmed and live among the local community.

MILOBs are generally deployed to remote areas where larger contingents cannot or will not go. If there’s ever a time in one’s military career that he or she must be self-sufficient, resourceful, cautious, impartial, diplomatic, courteous, understanding and tactful, and be the front line for “ground truth,” that time comes when one serves in the capacity of a MILOB.

Never has history seen the world more dynamic and transforming than it is today. U.S. foreign policy demands a steadfast, diplomatic approach to assuring peace and stability in troubled areas before resorting to harder measures. The opportunity to serve as a MILOB directly contributes to that important operational and strategic policy.

A MILOB’s influence on civil, military, economic and even political foreign representatives enable them with the potential to pave better relations with our counterparts abroad. Although our footprint is small by quantity inside the U.N., U.S. MILOBs provide the immense quality that will continue to be tangible for many in need, a source of value for a peacekeeping mission, and a crucial element to U.S. foreign policy for years to come.


Lt. William Abbott, a Honolulu native, joined the Navy in 2005, was commissioned through Officer Candidate School in 2008 and began his current assignment as a U.N. military observer in Zwerdru, Liberia, in May. His previous assignment was aboard the destroyer Kidd.

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