RECOGNITION FOR SAILORS FOR EFFORTS ON EBOLA MISSION
75 ‘Operational Medals’ were today presented to sailors from Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose who sailed to Sierra Leone making a vital contribution in the international fight against Ebola. Only 3000 ‘Ebola Medals’ for services in West Africa have been awarded nationally.
Aviators and engineers from 820 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), who served on Operation Gritrock, were recognised for their efforts at a medals parade held this morning. The squadron, who deployed at very short notice, were away for a total of six months. As well as flying 300 sorties, delivering much needed aid to the communities ofWest Africa, they also managed to raise a large amount of money for the ‘EducAid’ charity.
Three Merlin MK2 helicopters and 80 personnel from 820 NAS joined RFA Argus on its deployment toSierra Leonein October 2014. During the mission, the team supported the construction of six Ebola Treatment Centres by delivering much needed stores, people and medical supplies to inaccessible areas. Also, to enable RFA Argus to deliver reactive medical cover for personnel working in the country, the squadron provided an alert aircraft for casualty evacuation. This alongside a busy daily flying programme meant that the engineering team had to provide 24 hour cover with each man working a gruelling eight hours on/eight hours off shift pattern for the entire deployment.
Another success was the delivery of food relief to the isolatedSherbroIslandswhich had been cut off from the mainland due to strict infection control laws - subsequently the inhabitants were facing starvation. Over two days, the 820 team delivered in excess of 200 tonnes of food aid by flying over 100 under slung load missions. As a result enough food aid was provided to feed the 16,000 inhabitants for over a month.
Commander Ross Spooner, Commanding Officer of 820 Naval Air Squadron was justifiably full of pride for his team, he said: “Every person deployed should be incredibly proud of what they have individually contributed to the fight against Ebola. It was a rollercoaster of a deployment, but we made a real difference to communities inWest Africa.”
“When I reflect back, when we left theUKnearly a year ago, we were faced with many uncertain variables. We didn’t really understand the risk of what we were facing inSierra Leone, what we would find or how long we would be away from home. Over a six month period, our team delivered vital equipment, supplies and food packages to remote areas which were totally cut off. The aid that we delivered was really appreciated by the local communities and without our versatile Merlin helicopters, it would have been really difficult for the teams on the ground to reach them.”
Commander Spooner also paid tribute to the “incredible level” of support received from the families of personnel: “We were tasked at very short notice, to a place which was at the time, full of uncertainty and fear. Although we had all undergone a great deal of training and the risk of us contracting the Ebola virus was low, it was a very frightening time for some families. I must thank them for their support during this and our other recent overseas deployments.”
On top of the unrelenting operational flying programme of daily tasking and night time alerts, the squadron personnel were also keen to do more, as Commander Spooner explains: “Another significant achievement was the relationship that we developed with EducAid. There was a great desire amongst the team to do a bit more. Something tangible, especially when we saw the children who had been made orphans due to Ebola. The ship, squadron and families back in theUKall worked together to raise funds for isolated schools and create parcels of aid for those in real need. We managed to raise about £70,000 which continues to be put to good use even now we are back in the UK.”
Such was the impact that the charity had on the squadron, that they invited Miriam Mason-Sesay MBE (the Country Director and Principal of EducAid Schools) to present the medals at the ceremony today. Miriam, who flew in fromSierra Leonelast night, worked closely with 820 NAS during the deployment and runs a network of free schools inFreetownfor vulnerable young people. Miriam said, “Sierra Leoneis currently the 5th poorest country in the world, and I work with some of the poorest and most vulnerable people, arguably due to their lack of education. To have people coming to help when most of the world was shunning us was vital. I greatly appreciate all that the Royal Navy did forSierra Leone. In particular, I am sure that the children in my care will never forget the visit that they received from Father Christmas and his elves who were all delivered to us by a Merlin helicopter. If was fantastically exciting for them – some of them have lost everything and it was a welcome distraction in a time of great fear.”
Ever in demand, personnel from 820 Naval Air Squadron are currently deployed on operations in the Gulf, proving the versatility of the personnel and their state-of-the-art Merlin helicopters.
10 Days after returning from Operation Cougar, 820 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) was re-deployed on 17 Oct 2014 to Sierra Leone in support of the UK’s effort in tackling the Ebola outbreak in West Africa - Operation Gritrock.
Three Merlin MK2 helicopters and 80 Personnel from 820 NAS joined RFA Argus and, other than a few hours alongside in Gibraltar to embark stores, the ship stayed on task just off theSierra Leonecoast for the entire period.
The squadron supported the British Army and the Department for International Development (DiFD) in the construction of six Ebola Treatment Centres and the training of 4,000 health workers by providing the much needed delivery of stores, people and medical supplies utilising the heavy lift capability that the Merlin helicopter can offer, to the more inaccessible regions of the region.
The ship also provided the safeguard of being an Ebola free, advanced medical facility for all theUKand other entitled personnel working in the country. To facilitate the reactive medical cover required for the Operation, 820 NAS provided an alert aircraft for causality evacuation at 30 mins notice by day / 60 mins notice by night. This requirement, together with the need to provide the daily tasking aircraft which routinely flew between six-eight hours a day, meant that the engineering team had to provide 24 hour a day cover with each man working a gruelling eight hours on/eight hours off shift pattern for almost the entire six months.
During Operation Gritrock, RFA Argus was released from its primary tasking location in the vicinity of the capitol city,Freetownto execute a 48 hour World Food Programme mission – Operation Herring. Operation Herring provided food relief to the isolatedSherbroIslandsto the south of the country which had been cut off from the mainland due to strict infection control laws and subsequently the inhabitants were facing starvation. The ship was used to deliver 300 tonnes of food to the islands by air and sea. Due to a limited tidal window, the bulk of the mission was completed by 820 NAS which, over the 48 hour period, delivered in excess of 200 tonnes of food aid by flying over 100 under slung load missions. As a result enough food aid was provided to feed the 16,000 inhabitants for over a month by which point the infection control laws were lifted.
Over all, the squadron flew in excess on 800 hours in support of Operation Gritrock which equates to approximately 100,000 miles, this was more than double expected of a detachment of its size. Operation Gritrock was a success and the efforts of 820 NAS directly contributed to driving down the infection rates from over 500 per week upon arrival to almost zero on by the time they left theatre. The deployment lasted almost six months with 820NAS finally returning on 6th April 2015.
For more information about EducAid, please visit www.educaid.org.uk
Picture Credits: PO Paul A’Barrow