Milford man in key role fighting deadly cholera in the Congo

Kevin Bennett, of Milford, shows one of the shirts he wore during his recent eight month stint as a logistician with the group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, fighting outbreaks of cholera in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kevin Bennett, of Milford, shows one of the shirts he wore during his recent eight month stint as a logistician with the group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, fighting outbreaks of cholera in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As a Marine logistician for 51/2 years, Kevin Bennett found himself craving a challenge when active duty ended — and he found it as part of team treating deadly cholera in the Congo.

Bennett, 30, recently returned from an eight-month mission with Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières, as the French organization is known.

He is not a medical professional but brought his logistician expertise, arranging everything from the ground up — the building of shelter, ordering of supplies, hiring of workers, food and his construction/carpentry experience. He describes being a logistician as being like “the guy in the circus who keeps all the plates spinning.”

Keeping it all going in a military setting where the supply chain is “impeccable” and anything ordered is there in 24 hours is quite different, he said, than setting up a treatment center in an African Village where there’s no Home Depot, grocery store or even running water.

He was the logistician on an emergency cholera team from November 2017 to August 2018. The team included an epidemiologist, doctor and nurse at the core with about 35 Congolese employees.

The team did a new cholera intervention every four to six weeks — following the most serious outbreaks and getting there by boat or airplane, treated thousands and built more than 100 structures to house patients. A vaccine campaign was part of the mission.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states cholera is “an acute, diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine” and an estimated 2.9 million cases and 95,000 deaths occur each year around the world.

Bennett said cholera kills by leaving its victims dehydrated. The treatment is hydration. It is more rampant in places such as the Congo because conditions can be unsanitary, as soap and water aren’t common.

Bennett said to see a person come in unconscious and walk out three days later, or to see lifeless children playing three days later, “There’s no better feeling than that.”

While it was the medical team’s job to get folks better, they couldn’t have done it without Bennett because it was his job to create the setting for treatment — and everything around surviving.

It was tricky because of Congo’s poor infrastructure, he said. In some of the small villages they were the only white people the villagers had ever seen and people looked at them like aliens, Bennett said.

Bennett said they’d show up in a village with a bag of cash in American dollars and buy labor by asking the locals if they want to work and supplies from what might be a person in a shed. Bennett also got out his hammer and saw and worked alongside them, acting as foreman.

While he preferred to acquire a nice tent or build a decent structure, sometimes it wasn’t possible. Some roofs wound up being made of palms or bamboo — Bennett said the locals are amazingly creative — and if a structure had leaks, they got buckets. He recalls a situation where he ordered supplies that were supposed to arrive in four days, but took three weeks.

Bennett, who was paid $1,800 per month plus a daily allowance for meals and expenses, had emergency appendix surgery in the Congo. He often suffered from food poisoning from lack of sanitary cooking conditions, he said.

Asked what he ate, Bennett said “rice and beans” and “beans and rice.” The meals usually would have a tiny bit of meat on them, such as goat and fish, but the goats ate garbage, so the meat often made him sick. He kept working through sickness, and lost 25 pounds while he was away.

Bennett said he craved green salad, apples and Pepe’s pizza when he returned.

Bennett first saw Doctors Without Borders in action while serving in the Marine Corps in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, and “thought they were crazy” for traveling in a mere pickup truck and operating in the open without any weapons. He and fellow troops were well protected in a military vehicle and heavily armed.

But the group piqued his curiosity, so he researched it online but left it at a point of interest.

He did three deployments in the Marines, and now he’s ready for a second with Doctors Without Borders in the spring, but doesn’t know where the mission will take him.

“I think being a Marine, there is the challenge of it” that he likes, Bennett said.

Doctors Without Borders has projects in 20 of Democratic Republic of Congo’s 26 provinces, making it the group’s largest program worldwide, a spokesperson for the organization said. Bennett worked for the Pool d’Urgence Congo, one of the five emergency units based in the capital, Kinshasa.

During Bennett’s time there, the team responded to many emergencies, including a measles outbreak in Kisangani, an Ebola outbreak in Bikoro — which he was not a part of — and a cholera outbreak in Yumbi, one of the most remote regions in DRC accessible only by the Congo River, a spokesperson said.