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The View from Here: Reporting from Arlington, Virginia

Mike Gangwer Published on 13 March 2009

At the time of this writing, I am one day away from departing U.S. soil for my assignment in Baghdad.

I am completing my third week of training at the Foreign Services Institute (FSI) at the George Schultz Center. Tomorrow evening I board a United Airlines aircraft to Kuwait City from Dulles Airport here in Virginia. The direct flight is 12 hours.

In my second week of training, I attended the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Training Facility in Dunn Loring, Virginia. My classmates, all 24 of them, are destined for three locations: Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. All Foreign Services Officers (FSOs) assigned to these countries are required to take this five-day course. This facility is the primary site for all such training, at least in terms of the classroom.

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The topics include studying counterintelligence, security briefings, medical training for assessing injury severity or triage after a security incident (including weapons of mass destruction) and procedures for evacuating our posts (should that be necessary).

For the second half of the week, the class was taken to Winchester, Virginia. We began with weapon training on the firing range using sidearms and long rifles. For many of us, this was the first time firing an AK-47, a popular rifle among many military and insurgency groups around the world. I also had recurrent training for the standard weapon package used by the U.S. military.

The fourth and fifth days of the week included driver training. We used older Ford Police Interceptors that were stripped down to essential components. Each car included three of us (students) and one professional driver. We practiced driving at high speeds, ramming a stationary car, avoiding box-ins and egressing out of potential kill zones. We learned new ways of skidding, backing up, maneuvering a Y-turn and off-road handling. We learned to drive from the right-hand side of the car should our driver become disabled. We drove a lot of scenario routes, learning how to identify vehicle-borne incendiary devices, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.

Our last afternoon was the final exam, surviving a 2.2-mile gauntlet of diversions, buried incendiary devices, small arms fire, disabled cars and box-ins.

If all this sounds extraordinary, it is. One way I can rationalize the training is that we are, as diplomats, potential targets of opportunity. We are preparing for the worst possible scenarios with the understanding that we will likely never use these skills, but if we need to, we have them.

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I was exhausted at the end of the week. The training is intense. And these skills are certainly used outside the norm of what we do in our normal day.

In our final week, we are studying Iraq culture and language. There are 15 in the course. Held at the FSI, the group consists of two lawyers, three FBI officers, six analysts with the State Department, an economist, two auditors with the Office of Inspector General and me, the lone scientist in the group (and only USDA employee). All of us will be posted at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Our cultural awareness training prepares us for living and working in the Arab world. Our language training includes enough Arabic so we can know functional phrases that we will likely use when meeting with Iraqi officials.

I have prepared you for the next year of writing and reporting from Iraq. The country is undergoing rapid transformational changes. The new administration certainly is committed to a smaller U.S. military presence. The size and presence of the diplomatic contribution, including those of us assigned to technical and policy roles in Iraq, is not known. We are told there is a tremendous amount of work to do as we shift the central government of Iraq towards empowerment (decisions are theirs, not ours). We also will help them allocate their federal treasury based upon assessments, needs and sustainability from U.S. Treasury funds (taxpayer dollars).

The USDA mission at the U.S. embassy is a team approach. I’ll write about the team effort this coming year. I’ll have the opportunity to travel to all regions of Iraq, visiting agricultural centers, projects and infrastructures. I do not know yet much about the educational system in Iraq, but I’ll soon learn. There are 15 or so Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Iraq, modeled slightly differently than the two I was part of in Afghanistan. I hope to visit most of them during this coming year.

This is a great adventure for me. I have often described myself as a pilgrim. Certainly this is a pilgrimage. I have often described myself as a humanitarian. Raising the bar of humanity brings meaning to my life. I have often written on these pages that I subscribe to the ethos we must lead authentic lives and in doing so we bring meaning to our lives. And I have often described myself as a patriot. Serving my country that has been so good to me is rewarding. I can look myself in the mirror at day’s end and feel good that I have given something back.

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All pilgrims embark on a journey of enlightenment and sacrifice. We discover new challenges, learning something about ourselves no matter how many times we are on our pathway. We become Parsifals (Wolfram von Eschenbach’s The Holy Grail Legend), going into the place where no map exists; we must find our way. We will take the more difficult path at times. Such is the lesson Christian learned in his pilgrimage in the book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.

When we return, we have made a difference for those we meet on the journey. This is living the life of Parsifal for we bring meaning not only to ourselves, but to others as well. This is my passion for the next year in Iraq. PD

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