US Diplomacy 2021 Honors Jenkins Vangehn: The Unsung Hero Who Saved Liberia on the Brink One of Africa’s Worst Atrocities
Liberian-born, Jenkins Vangehn, whose towering and selfless patriotism earned him the United States Diplomacy 2021 Hero Award – on June 29, 2021, via virtual streaming, made history for his native Liberia and to his credit for his critical role in 2003 to courageously and bravely avert one Africa’s worst human atrocities. Jenkins Vangehn is undoubtedly Liberia’s unsung hero. Did anyone expect a young lad from Liberia’s remote Mining Town of Saclepea to accomplish such a feat?
Jenkins Vangehn saw his father gruesomely murdered due to guilt by ethnicity. The late Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) Commanding General, Thomas Quiwonkpa failed coup of November 12, 1985, fueled tribal enmity between the Gios and Manos of Nimba County in Northeaster Liberia and the Krahn’s of the late President Samuel Doe of Grand Gedeh County.
Jenkins Vangehn, the eldest of four children, had to rise to the occasion by buttressing the efforts of his mother who was largely involved in petty trading. Such is the harsh reality of many Liberians – mainly from rural Liberian households. But his late dad’s unwarranted death did not create in him a sense of grudge but remorse – never to see the reoccurrence of the brutal killing of any Liberian owing to the actions and inactions of ethnic generalization or stereotyping.
Liberia 2003 senseless war by competing warring factions must have disappeared but history will remain kind to an unsung hero like Jenkins Vangehn who started his career with the State Department as a political and economic assistant in January 2001 at the height of Liberia’s second civil war, which lasted from April 1999 through August 2003.
Meritoriously, in 2010, Jenkins was promoted to the POL/ECON section’s senior political specialist. During his 19-year career with the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Jenkins has provided critical, constant and indeed heroic service. He has supported not only the POL/ECON section, but also successive Ambassadors and Deputy Chiefs of Mission, the Defense Attaché Office, the Regional Security Office, and the Public Affairs Office, and in doing so, advanced U.S. foreign policy and goals in Liberia and West Africa.
Throughout the Liberian civil war, the Embassy faced severe staffing gaps; Jenkins often served as the de facto political officer during long gaps without an American in the section. It fell on Jenkins to conduct the political and economic reporting, facilitate travel for visitors, maintain lines of communication with warring factions and negotiators, and even assist in the eventual evacuation of the Embassy.
Known for his exceptional modesty, many in the Embassy today are unaware of the crucial role Jenkins played in sustaining Embassy operations, providing information to the then U.S. Ambassador John Blaney, and also helping American citizens during the heaviest periods of conflict. At a recent public affairs program, journalist Sebastian Junger, who reported from Liberia during the civil war, recalled the dark days of 2003 and expressed his gratitude for the Embassy’s efforts, to include Jenkins’s behind-the-scenes work, to ensure Junger could safely depart Liberia when threats were made on his life.
Jenkins Vangehn also worked closely with Foreign Service Officer Dante Paradiso, who was a junior officer at the Embassy Monrovia at the time chronicled some of Jenkins’ experiences as a locally engaged staff member at the Embassy during the final months of the civil war in his 2016 non-fiction work The Embassy: A Story of War and Diplomacy. Paradiso observes that local staff who serve “the interests of the United States with distinction over many years do so out of concern for their colleagues and passion for principle.” Paradiso writes of Jenkins’s extraordinary dedication during the period from May to August 2003 when rebel troops shelled the city and killed at least 1,000 civilians:
It was why, during the attack on the capital, Jenkins slept on the floor of his office and washed his clothes in the sink while day and night he worked his contacts to keep the Ambassador briefed on news from the front, or from upcountry. It was why he did not look first to his own safety, quit his job, and pack up.
Jenkins once vividly recounted standing outside Gate 1—one of the most frequently used entrances to the Embassy compound—listening to the BBC with a group of bystanders, only to walk into the Controlled Access door right before a mortar fell on the group listening to the radio. Within the Embassy, supplies were scarce and those who remained after the Ordered Departure had to ration food and drinking water, using non-potable water for bathing. Living and working at the Embassy brought a measure of safety, but also carried risks. He worried constantly about his family. Troops from the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), Charles Taylor’s force that controlled most of Monrovia, grew suspicious of Jenkins, and began surveilling his home. Angered by Jenkins’s work with the Embassy, which was putting pressure on Taylor to give up power, the AFL troops went to his residence and shot his beloved dogs.
During this precarious time, when he could, Jenkins would leave the compound to gauge the political situation around town. He was often accosted by military forces loyal to Charles Taylor and accused of spying for the United States. In one such episode, at a roadblock manned by members of Taylor’s feared Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) near the Embassy, Jenkins was accosted by ATU personnel, accused of being a spy, and threatened with disappearance and notified he would “go missing.”
Luckily, he escaped without serious harm. Though Jenkins feared for his life, and the safety of his home and family, he continued to come to work, despite the checkpoints and mortars, and continued to meet with Embassy contacts, despite the suspicion it raised with Charles Taylor’s forces. Ambassador Blaney asked Jenkins to take part in the daily country team meetings, normally only attended by cleared Americans, because of the value of the information he provided from his many well-placed sources in government agencies, security forces, the human rights and journalism communities, local neighborhoods and upcountry cities and towns. His vast array of contacts provided invaluable information to the Ambassador and the small American team remaining on the Embassy compound; Jenkins’s insights and up-to-the-minute fact-gathering shaped the Embassy’s reporting to Washington and its decision making on the Mission’s policy steps and security posture.
Ambassador Blaney recounted: “Jenkins would walk up to gunmen, stone killers, to get the information that I needed. It is no exaggeration to say that Jenkins provided vital information that allowed me to better frame my options. I think without the knowledge Jenkins provided me, I might well have succumbed to heavy pressure to close the Embassy. In that case, the war would have continued and gone into downtown Monrovia amidst hundreds of thousands of displaced running away from war and others, totaling about a million people. Liberia would have collapsed as a failed state, and likely become the epicenter for regional violence and probably an incubator for terrorism. America should recognize Jenkins.”
In June 2003 while performing his duty as political assistant—drafting spot reports and cables, arranging meetings for the Ambassador, and liaising with local journalists, civil society representatives, humanitarian workers, and UN contacts—Jenkins also assisted in the evacuation of hundreds of U.S. citizens, European nationals, and other foreigners who were evacuated via military helicopters from the Embassy compound. At that time, American citizens frequently called or wrote letters to the Embassy requesting help evacuating their homes and traversing the dangerous streets to reach the Embassy. Jenkins helped identify American citizens who were trapped throughout the city due to the fighting. At great risk to himself, Jenkins traveled under the cover of darkness to physically collect American citizens and bring them to the Embassy.
He also helped process unaccompanied minors and contacted their parents in the United States to arrange travel for the children. Jenkins regularly spent several nights with frightened unaccompanied minor American citizens until seats were secured on the military helicopters for their evacuation. The evacuation process had feeding, lodging, and medical components on the Embassy compound that Jenkins helped coordinate. He also assisted in the monitoring of people allowed on the military helicopters evacuating U.S. citizens and other nationalities to ensure the flights were not overcrowded.
When a prominent human rights activist was being held by President Charles Taylor on suspicion of being a Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel collaborator, and charged with treason, Jenkins visited his wife and son, and made the arrangements for them to leave the country by pretending they were his own family. Jenkins also quietly shuttled messages between the detainee’s relatives and the Embassy and visited several human rights activists in prison. In June 2003, Jenkins worked closely with political officer Paradiso to help negotiate and draft a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal statement for LURD rebel forces that convinced LURD forces to depart Monrovia.
Ambassador Blaney noted that “the document was crucial because it was the real vehicle that ended the war; that is, right on the battlefield.” It unstuck the negotiations in Ghana of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, allowing negotiations to conclude successfully in approximately ten days. The agreement that was ultimately struck likely saved thousands of lives. In August 2003, Jenkins supported the U.S. military task force that was sent to Liberia to pressure former warlord Charles Taylor to leave Liberia. He provided key political insight into Taylor’s intentions and directly liaised with Taylor’s closest advisors notifying them that Taylor must leave Liberia in order to achieve peace.
Following the end of the fighting, Jenkins threw himself into U.S. initiatives to support Liberia’s recovery. During the administration of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) from October 2003 until January 2006, Jenkins worked with the U.S. Treasury Department to deploy personnel from the Office of Technical Assistance (OTA) to revive Liberia’s economy, destroyed by over 20 years of civil war. Jenkins worked with the NTGL and the U.S. Embassy to deploy OTA personnel to the key entities including the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank of Liberia, and the Ministry of Commerce. Jenkins also represented the Embassy on the Governance Economic Management Program (GEMAP) to put the Liberian economic back on track. U.S. sponsored GEMAP personnel were deployed at various Government of Liberia institutions to instill fiscal and management discipline including the Freeport of Monrovia, the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company, and Roberts International Airport.
The selflessness and courage that Jenkins demonstrated during the war years – and the all-out effort he made to aid his country and support the U.S. Mission – prompt this nomination of Jenkins as one of the State Department’s Heroes of Diplomacy. In the 16 years since the civil war ended, Jenkins has continued to tirelessly support U.S. efforts to advance Liberia’s peace and security, its democracy, and development. So many U.S. diplomats have benefited from Jenkins’s wise advice and counsel, his knowledge of Liberia and analysis of its politics, economy, and culture, and his belief in the importance to both countries of a strong U.S.-Liberian relationship.
Although Mark 6:4 says “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,” Jenkins Vangehn has emerged as that unsung hero who stood tall and prevented Liberia from turning into another Rwanda. We salute our brave, courageous, and strong compatriots for doing for Liberia what no politician would sacrifice to selflessly do in troubled times.