John Butler with a group of local children in the city of Kakata, Liberia. "The county is resurrecting from 14 years of civil war," says Butler, who was born in Liberia, left as a child as the country was veering toward civil war, and returned in March of this year to help build the nation's fire department. "I don't have a lot of money, but I have skill sets, and thought that I could help." (Photo courtesy John Butler / May 3, 2012)

This was not the Liberia that John Butler left in his youth, a 13-year-old fleeing with his parents and three siblings. Back then, a coup had turned the west African nation toward turmoil, toward more than two decades of ethnic tension, repression, civil war and dictatorship that had left the country battled-scarred but seeking to recover over the past nine years.

That was the Liberia that he came back to in March, a 44-year-old now from Ellicott City, returning to his homeland for only the second time since leaving.

Butler, an assistant fire chief for Howard County's Department of Fire and Rescue Services, was there to help rebuild the country's fire department.

"Their ability to truly stop a fire and make a save are limited," Butler said recently from his office in Columbia. "Most of the fires in Liberia are large or even fatal. They have only one working fire truck in the entire country, a country the size of Ohio. The capital of Monrovia has a population of 1.5 million.

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"I don't have a lot of money," he said. "But I have skill sets, and thought that I could help."

Butler wasn't alone. From March 15-26, he traveled alongside others with the Fire Rescue Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded by Ken Prillaman, fire chief in Brooklyn Park, Minn. The group is dedicated to helping firefighters in Liberia.

By coincidence, both Prillaman and Butler's mother had been standing in an airport in Atlanta in January, waiting for a flight to Liberia. She heard Prillaman talking about fire departments and the country, approached the man and told him about her son. Prillaman called Butler two days later.

"When I heard about this project," Butler said, "it was a perfect fit."

Others agreed. "John is going to be very instrumental, not only from a technical perspective, but also a cultural one," Prillaman said. "Even though he's been away from Liberia for several years, he's able to transcend the cultural differences."

Liberia to Columbia

The Butlers left Liberia in 1980, when a coup led by Samuel Doe brought about the assassination of President William Tolbert and toppled his government. Tolbert was a descendant of Americo-Liberians, a group of African-Americans who had emigrated from the United States and come to the fledgling country. The new regime persecuted Americo-Liberians. It was no longer safe for people like their family.

"We had to pack up and move along," Butler said. "That Liberia was not our Liberia any longer."

They moved to Oakland Mills.

"There were some similarities with the Liberia I had left and Howard County," Butler said. "It was still romantic to be young and growing up here. It still felt safe. I still felt like an equal, and we didn't move to a part of America that was struggling with its own social issues. We moved to a welcoming place in Howard County that accepted us as immigrants."

The family did return to Liberia in 1986 to visit relatives. The country's civil war would break out a few years later. Butler never went back after that. He and his two brothers had gone off to college, dropped out, went into the Marines, fought in the Persian Gulf War and in Panama, and settled down into adulthood, marrying, having children and finding careers. Their other relatives had come to America, anyway.

"Liberia became a place that you were from — period," he said. "There was nothing calling me back."

It had also been 26 years away from Liberia for John Butler's brother George, an Ellicott City resident and a senior trooper with the Maryland State Police's Waterloo barracks who traveled with the group of 15 people.

"I had spent a lot of time in the Marines, and I had seen places that are coming out of war," John Butler said. "I've seen buildings pockmarked with bullet holes. Those things are new and foreign to me in Monrovia, where I was.

"The sounds, the sights, the smells, they were all reminiscent. You'd have thought I just left yesterday. The thickness of the air, the things I heard, the accents of the people talking — everything came back spontaneously."

'A long way to go'