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The View from Here: Another assignment begins

Mike Gangwer Published on 27 August 2010

In 18 years of writing this column, I have written of journeys all over the world, some as short as a month and then a recent one as long as 16 months in Iraq. They tell the story of an agricultural scientist at work. I have answered the call to service and gone into the world to seek and effect change. You have read of stories in Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Caucuses and the Middle East.

The two recent tours of nearly 2.5 years were in war zones. As difficult as Afghanistan was in 2006, the enduring mission in Iraq was truly an assignment of wear and tear. However, the Iraq assignment is done, and I said goodbye to my friends and colleagues at Embassy Baghdad in mid-June.

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I begin another expeditionary assignment. Here, I write of the new call to service. As I have always tried to do, I will write with as much clarity and honesty as I can, fully explaining the why behind such calls to duty, and why I answer them.

The Civilian Response Corps (CRC) was born out of President Bush’s National Security Council in 2004. NSC sought to develop a “whole of government” approach towards two of the three D’s they operate under – defense, development and diplomacy. I have at times written of these in the column. The NSC tasked the U.S. State Department to develop this approach by reaching into other federal government departments for the civilians with expeditionary experience, technical planning expertise and the willingness to be deployed for half of their careers in regions or countries already at or near civil unrest or conflict. A tall order.

The U.S. State Department established the CRC by forming two groups: an active component of about 200 civilian professionals whose full-time job is preparing for deployment and helping develop national foreign policy using holistic planning and then about 1,600 other civilians that serve in a standby role. The standby role serves as reachback for those of us in the active component. We can be deployed to Zimbabwe for instance, and if we need additional support, we reach back to the standby component for support.

There are eight of us serving in the active component of CRC from the USDA. We are all Washington, D.C.-based, and we have offices in either the State Department or our own USDA national headquarters on Independence Avenue. My seven colleagues are all about my age, have prior overseas experience and generally have very different skills. Two of us are from my agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The State Department houses (administratively) the CRC in the office of S/CRS, or State/Coordinator of Reconstruction and Stabilization. The CRC is comprised of civilians from the Defense, State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Commerce, Justice and Agriculture Departments. The bulk of civilians come from the State Department and USAID.

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Our first step is eight weeks of training. We attend a two-week course at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. I am in the middle of this course at this writing. The next course, a three-week course in West Virginia, takes us through a military style orientation and survival course, including some of the same training I had before the Afghanistan and Iraq deployments. The three-week planning course is delivered at the National Defense University, just south of the Capital on the waterfront area. Once these courses are complete, we are considered deployable.

The CRC model is a work in progress, an experiment and essentially is based on the vision by the NSC that delivering our foreign policy can be done using smart power. This phrase was coined by the State Department. In the simplest context, it means that we use an array of tools, both hard power as in military defense, and soft tools, as in diplomacy, to affect the desired outcome in a country listed as failing or at risk for conflict. The effect is nation-building or development – that third D. We use the terms reconstruction and stabilization in describing development.

Certainly, our many years of reconstruction and development in Afghanistan, Iraq and, to some extent, Pakistan, have together caused many legislators and administrative officials to opine that we can do better with our effort. That effort includes using smart power to better spend federal taxpayer dollars to mitigate the drivers of conflict in countries throughout the world, thereby helping stabilize nations or regions from the effects of insurgency.

This counterinsurgency model is wholly adapted by the U.S. military, as seen in their joint efforts to couple all branches of the military with the Chief of Mission and the ambassadors in every embassy, recognizing that we fight and engage a different insurgency than in wars past. Some may call these efforts asymmetrical, given the fact that insurgents generally do not engage in the battle with uniforms and standard war fighting techniques.

For those of us answering this call to service, it means another couple years of expeditionary travels, and I do not know where I will be deployed, nor when. I do know that we are all learning how we can merge our colleagues’ efforts from across the entire federal government into a team of planners, logistics and technical experts, and then deploy to some far-away land. Our task is simple: Attempt to help the ambassador and his country team have a plan for the host government that will reduce the drivers of conflict and increase the factors that mitigate them. We all know that in much of the world, agricultural development is essential at moving a country into food security and enhancing the economic model of food and feed production.

I have a lot of work ahead of me. As an agricultural systems scientist with core skills of soil physics, those of water flow through the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum (SPAC), the work is fundamentally important wherever crops are grown for human food or animal feed.

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For the next couple of years or so, I will report to you about my work in the Civil Response Corps. At times I will write from Washington, D.C., and at other times, from somewhere else in the world.

I have agreed to continue my expeditionary work for service to our county. Many of you have written to me of your support, and I am grateful. Trust me, in the reaches of some far-away land, a note from home sets the stage mentally for an enduring presence, whether in body armor or not, so that we may serve today, and tomorrow.

Finally, let me leave you with the website for the S/CRS CRC. Check out what we do: www.state.gov/s/crs/civilianresponsecorps/index.htm PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
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