From Africa and back: My Air Force story

  • Published
  • By Capt. Martha Muon
  • 52 Medical Operations Squadron
Today I am an Air Force officer serving proudly in the Nurse Corps.  In 2003, I became a citizen of the United States. I have come a long way to be where I'm at today.

I was born in a small village in South Sudan during the midst of a civil war. The year was 1983, when nearly 2.5 million people died and four-million were displaced. My family and I were among the displaced. My father fled to avoid persecutions; my siblings and I spent 11 years of our lives living as refugees in various camps between the border of South Sudan and Ethiopia. Eventually we relocated to another camp near Kenya where we lived and survived for two years.

Growing up in the camps, our only source of food and medical care came from the feeding centers operated by United Nations healthcare workers, Red Cross volunteers, missionary nurses and other groups like Doctors without Borders. The lines in these feeding camps lasted for days.  Quite often, children would return without being seen. In my case, I was never seen by a nurse because my mother would surrender my spot to other children who appeared to be in greater need of medical care then I was. I remember sitting in lines pondering my future as a healthcare worker. I told my mother and my aunt that I had a deep desire to become a nurse or a doctor so I could make a difference. I wanted to work toward making the feeding lines shorter and to have the ability to care for sick children. My mother replied, "You have to ask God for that, because only God knows what he plans for you in your future."

In 1995, we were fortunate to come to the United States through the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and settled in Des Moines, Iowa. We were sponsored by a retired U.S. Air Force officer and his wife. At the age of 11, I did not read, write or speak English. I spoke my native tongue Nuer fluently; however, my reading and writing skills were on second-grade level. My parents worked in a meat company, making minimum wage in order to support a family of eight children, but to me, life was good. We were free, had decent shelter, food, access to medical care, and most importantly, we were able to receive a good-quality education. We lived below the poverty line and struggled like many immigrants, but we remained thankful and humble.

In 2008, I became a registered nurse. One of the first things I wanted to do was to find a way to express my appreciation for the men and women who sacrificed to make this country free for me to live, survive and thrive. I decided to pay my thanks through working as a nurse at the Veteran Affairs hospital in Seattle. Additionally, I wanted to pay homage and honor my sponsor and friend, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Sources (Ret) as well as those who sacrificed their lives for my freedom.

That same year, I lost my younger brother Simon to suicide. Simon took his own life at the age of 21 shortly after being diagnosed with Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Another reason I decided to join the military was to honor my brother Simon.

In 2014, after spending three years working in the VA, I decided to join the Air Force to serve my country. My goal was to continue my education, become involved with humanitarian missions world-wide, and most of all, to continue serving this great nation.

Such an opportunity came Aug. 14, 2015, when my squadron commander informed me of a short-notice tasking to Ghana to be part of the West Africa disaster preparedness initiative team. I was elated to have the rare chance to go home to educate people from the nation I was born in. I became emotional and cried in the presence of my squadron commander and my colleagues because I was overcome by this life-long desire to return someday. I reflected on the opportunity and immediately saw myself and my brothers in those refugee camps. I remembered everything about that experience. I recalled the day we arrived in the United States and the sub-optimal physical and mental conditions we were in. America gave me freedom, education and the opportunity to take care of myself and my family. On this day, the Air Force gave me an amazing opportunity to return to Africa to share what the Air Force trained me to do in a multi-national environment with healthcare workers from 17 different West Africa countries--what an honor and blessing it was for me!

The first day of class was Aug. 18. We were instructed to wear civilian attire and observe and help facilitate the Defense Institute of Medicine instructors. Among those instructing was Dr. Michael Owen , who was one of the first American physicians deployed to Liberia in October 2014. Dr. Owen reminded me of how selfless the military is. As I looked around and began interacting, I quickly realized that the participants were from different ministries and agencies in West Africa, and they were all involved in disaster management systems. This class consisted primarily of a journalist and first responders from the neighboring countries of Togo, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cote'ivore. The main objective for the three-week training course for the West Africa region was to use lessons learned from the recent Ebola epidemic, strengthen nation capacity among 17 West African nation partners, and implement an "all-hazards" approach to disaster preparedness and response management.

During the second week of the project, the first presentation was given by Dr. Lecons Tirees  who was one of the local national physicians. According to a World Health Organization report, approximately 678 healthcare workers were affected by Ebola, and more than 55 percent died of Ebola. In mid-November 2014, neighboring countries begin deploying healthcare workers to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria. In total, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 11,299 people in West Africa died from Ebola. Many participants explained how the fear and lack of medical knowledge contributed to the Ebola epidemic  according to the Brooking Institute.

Fear among the people caused them to avoid seeking medical attention and flee their respective countries. One of the participants told me that many local officials left their countries for the western world. A sharp contrast were leaders and humanitarians like Dr. Owen, who left the U.S. to go to Africa to help while others fled the situation.

During the last week of our training, I conducted a lecture series on the risks of occupational exposure to Ebola. There were 44 students in this class who worked with refugees in their respective countries. In the middle of my presentation I was discussing ways to prevent accidental needle sticks and vividly remembered how back in the refugee camps healthcare workers would line us up for vaccinations at the feeding centers. They used the same syringe and needle repeatedly for multiple children from different families, until the syringe was empty... an experience I will never forget! 

After the lecture, someone came up to me and stated that even today, "People in the villages still share needles because of lack of supplies." Moreover, she stated the people from West Africa have suffered tremendously from this outbreak. She expressed how grateful she was to the international communities for looking in from afar and helping to meet the needs of nations so desperately in need of the basics. I listened to her attentively and felt great pride knowing that the United States Air Forces in Europe and United States Africa Command disaster preparedness was one of the main supporters of this initiative.

Above all, I was proud to see that the people of West Africa were making great strides to manage current and future disasters. I agreed with Dr. Kinsford Asamoah , head of the National Disaster Management Organization when he said, 'While we cannot always prevent disasters as a region, we must work together to ensure West Africa is better prepared to reduce human suffering and save lives in the event of another devastating outbreak."

I am absolutely blessed, and extremely grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to share my knowledge with a nation in need.

I am immensely excited to be part of a military organization that fights to protect not only its citizens, but the citizens of other countries around the world.  Along with the desires to serve my country, I will continue to seek future opportunities to help and get involved with humanitarian missions in order to pay it forward to children currently living in dismal situations without hope. I am thankful to my entire chain of command and the AF International Health Specialist community for inviting me to be part of their team to work and share this experience.
Every Airman has a story, and I believe this is the beginning of my story and my Air Force journey.