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Army general reflects on U.N. mission to Liberia

Oct. 6, 2013 - 10:46AM   |  
Brig. Gen. Hugh Van Roosen, chief of staff of the United Nations Mission in Liberia, crosses from Liberia to Guinea during an information-sharing mission.
Brig. Gen. Hugh Van Roosen, chief of staff of the United Nations Mission in Liberia, crosses from Liberia to Guinea during an information-sharing mission. (Army)
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Fresh off a 15-month tour in Liberia, the first American general appointed to United Nations duty in more than 16 years said he hopes more U.S. military personnel get the chance to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world.

“I had an awful lot of fun with that mission,” said Brig. Gen. Hugh Van Roosen, who commanded the Army Reserve’s 353rd Civil Affairs Command in New York before deploying last summer to Liberia. “For me, the opportunity to participate in a U.N. peacekeeping operation was everything I hoped it would be.”

Van Roosen served as the force chief of staff at the United Nations Mission in Liberia, and spent more than 15 months as part of the more than 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force there. He returned to the U.S. on Sept. 9.

During his time in Liberia, he responded to “significant crises,” he said, “from rescues at sea to large mob violence events. Doing that while keeping the peace was quite a challenge.”

It was also “a daily satisfaction, having the chance to work with very professional officers and civilian personnel from so many countries,” he said. “Working toward the joint goal of maintaining peace and bringing a successful future to an African country is just about as good as it gets.”

The last time an American general officer served with the U.N. was in Bosnia in 1996.

U.S. military participation in the U.N. peacekeeping mission has been limited for the past decade because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now that operations in Iraq have ended and the military draws down in Afghanistan, Van Roosen said he hopes the U.S. will continue to contribute to the U.N. peacekeeping effort.

“Our military has been extremely involved in a variety of international requirements in the last decade,” he said. “The capacity of our military to handle an increased utilization with the U.N. is clearly better now than it was in the past.”

There are about 30 American service members serving in U.N. peacekeeping operations, Van Roosen said. Each of them is “an incredible bang for the buck,” he said.

“With 44 different nations making up a mission, there really is no common ground upon which to build your operating strategy,” he said. “So you’ve got to build one that works within that 44-nation mix, [and] U.S. service members are very capable in managing complex organizational challenges like that.”

When he deployed last summer, Van Roosen said he didn’t know what to expect.

The U.N. Mission in Liberia is one of 16 peacekeeping operations operated by the U.N. It has been in the West Africa nation since 2003, after years of fighting ended when former President Charles Taylor resigned.

Taylor, who faced war crimes charges, was convicted in April 2012 and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

The CIA World Factbook describes the security situation in Liberia as “fragile,” adding that the “process of rebuilding the social and economic structure of this war-torn country continues.”

During his tour in Liberia, Van Roosen said the force’s mandated mission was to ensure the safety and security of the country, downsize the U.N. force from about 9,000 to about 3,500 by the summer of 2015, and build the capacity of the Liberian armed forces and national police.

As chief of staff, Van Roosen had a staff of about 90 officers from 44 countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana, South Korea, Ethiopia, Finland and Denmark.

About five months in, Van Roosen led an effort to reorganize, update and train the mission’s quick-reaction force and contingency plans. He also took command of about 2,000 troops, including Chinese soldiers, in specialty units such as engineers and aviation that were “orphans” and did not fall under a clear chain of command.

In Liberia, Van Roosen was based in the capital of Monvoria, where he lived in an apartment downtown. He walked to work on most days, and often would fly to one of almost 50 locations across the country to visit with the troops stationed there.

“Liberia is a mostly peaceful place,” Van Roosen said. “It is a beautiful country, [but] it has issues like every African country does, with unemployment and strength of government, particularly with rule of law.”

When he left, Van Roosen was replaced on an interim basis by a colonel from Denmark.

Van Roosen was waiting for orders for his next assignment.

“I didn’t really have a good idea of what the heck I was getting into when I left, but the mission itself was a great one,” he said. “The U.S. commitment to U.N. peacekeeping is continuing, and I hope it continues and increases.”

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