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0908 PD: Reporting to you from ... Washington, D.C.

Mike Gangwer Published on 10 June 2008

I am in our nation’s capital for two days. I’ve written about the first day, just completed, and described the second day that will follow tomorrow.

About two dozen of us are in Rosslyn, a business district near the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. We are all USDA employees having completed temporary duty assignments in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are here for a day of discovering lessons learned so the next group of volunteers might be better prepared and accomplish greater good.

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Our exercise today required a lot of brainstorming. Our facilitator was a U.S. Marine major, now retired, with a couple of college degrees in political science and history.

We are part of the stabilization and reconstruction effort in these two war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. We all volunteered to go, and the call of service included working closely with the U.S. military. I wrote of my assignment with two provincial reconstruction teams several times in 2006 and early 2007.

Our group today includes an ambassador, two agency heads and a cross-section of State Department (DOS) Foreign Service Officers. We served with them all. Our group includes a dozen support staff, helping link us with the U.S. government during our duty assignments overseas, including logistics, moral support and coordination of schedules.

We are family. We have lived in a war zone; we have survived, and we have changed the world. These are not idle words, and I write them sincerely. The assignment is one we truly never leave. Like soldiers everywhere, our lives are never the same. In this column, I have often written of my difficulty being integrated back into civilian life. Coming here today, to Rosslyn, might help with that integration.

We talked about post deployment strategies, including ramping up counseling after our tours are over. We may need to, in fact, go through what the military uses in terms of decompression techniques. We also talked about the preparation in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I wrote of this assignment in February 2007 in Progressive Dairyman. My role there was helping a dozen USDA employees understand integrated command. I did not have this training before my deployment, so for those going now, this model is a huge improvement.

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Tomorrow is something very different. We are meeting at the C Street entrance for the State Department in Foggy Bottom, D.C. At 10:30 a.m., the Secretary of State will unveil a plaque on a Memorial Wall, inside DOS headquarters, honoring two civilians who lost their lives as part of provincial reconstruction teams. One was a USDA Forest Service employee from California. His name is Tom Stefani, and he was just 28 years old. As a solemn and respectful event, we will stand for a moment while the families of these two men contemplate the memorial.

Then we will taken by shuttle to the Whitten Building, part of the USDA headquarter complex. There, we will be greeted individually by Ed Shafer, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, as part of the service recognition for USDA employees having completed tours overseas. There are 37 of us having completed assignments, with 24 of us here for the ceremony. Afterwards, we will meet informally with agency heads and our colleagues here in Washington, D.C.

Our dinner tomorrow takes place in a group setting as well. We will share our assignment stories and trust me, share some thoughts that only those of us having been there will understand.

Regardless how we may feel about conducting a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly everyone will agree that we need to get these two countries back on their feet, and this means stabilization and reconstruction. We are a rich and powerful country, and we ought to help out those who are less fortunate. A stable and economically robust country participates in the world as part of the solution instead of being part of the problem, where societies fail and people live miserable lives. We have the resources to accomplish much of this stabilization and reconstruction. If we can do this before civil war is manifest, then we have done something far less costly in terms of our treasure and blood.

And in fact the State Department is developing this very model – a civilian corps ready to be deployed at nearly a moment’s notice, whose mission is going anywhere in the world and getting out in front of a problem. Written another way, the foreign policy is shifting by shaping the battlefield in non-kinetic terms before reacting to a kinetic battlefield. Or an even better description might be: So that a place never becomes a battlefield.

Tomorrow I will shake the Secretary of Agriculture’s hand. But before I leave town, I will sign up for the Civilian Expeditionary Corps. This corps needs agricultural scientists as well as other civilian engineers, lawyers and medical personnel.

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Their mission is clear: Prevent war. Thus, a call to service might come any time. I will be ready. PD

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