Nehkonti grew up in the Liberian capital of Monrovia; loved by her parents and enamored with the charms of her home country. Financially stable, well-educated and surrounded by a loving family, she enjoyed the traditions, culture and natural beauty that came with life there.
Her family owned and operated a medical clinic, where her mother was a nurse and her father was a physician specializing in cardiology. Though both of her parents worked in the medical field, Nehkonti had never found interest in it; she wanted to be a dancer.
Nehkonti was young when she first realized her country was at war. Her sister woke her up one morning and instructed her to roll onto the floor to avoid gunfire. The two then crawled to the bathroom to prepare for the day. They crawled to their meals for weeks to come, all to keep their heads below the window line. To the young Nehkonti, it felt like a game—little did she know that Liberia was in the midst of a coup d’état.
Torn with a decision to remain in Liberia and hope for the best or to leave the country, Nehkonti’s parents took the latter option. Through the connection of a distant relative living in the United States, the Adams’ were able to get out of Liberia before the true violence began. They fled to Illinois in search of safety and stability.
After a few years of living in the United States, Nehkonti began to understand the impact of the civil war on Liberia. Her parents would send money to relatives to help children go to school, help pay rent and to ensure family members could eat. Even then, it wasn’t until she joined the Navy that Nehkonti would gain a true understanding of the situation back in her childhood home.
The war was one of Africa’s deadliest civil conflicts in the post-independence era. In the years leading up to war, the Gio and Mano ethnic groups were persecuted by President Samuel Doe’s own tribe, the Krahn. Doe saw them as inferiors and ostracized them from the rest of the country. Tensions ran high.
Enter Charles Taylor, who had left President Samuel Doe’s controversial government after being accused of embezzlement. His group known as the NFPL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) invaded Nimba County with the support of thousands of Gio and Mano people who had endured the wrath of President Doe since a previous attempted coup in 1985. After President Doe was killed in 1990, a brutal power struggle continued in the country until Taylor was elected President in 1997.
The war claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Liberian citizens in a nation of just 2.1 million people. It displaced a million others in refugee camps in countries across the world.
“To fully understand what had happened in the war, I just realized how fortunate we were to be in the United States,” Nehkonti explained.
After meeting a Navy recruiter at lunch during her senior year in high school, Nehkonti started to view the Navy as an option to better herself while traveling the world. She’d been interested in dance and the possibility of becoming a flight attendant, but thought the Navy could offer her a more clear career path.
“The recruiter said that, one, I would have money for school, which I wasn’t interested in at the time, but if I wanted to later on in life, I had money available for school. Instead, I would see the world. That’s why I joined, because I wanted to travel and see what different cultures looked like.”