Civilian teams sent to Afghanistan to boost reconstruction efforts 



John Riordan is a career foreign service officer working with USAID. In 2006 and 2007, he served in Iraq. After that he completed the School for Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. "I’m a real Jedi warrior," he said with a smile.

Now at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in southern Indiana, he is working with civilian augmentees from USAID, the State Department and Department of Agriculture who will soon be going to Afghanistan as members of provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) or working with the Afghan National Government in Kabul.

The augmentees are the second rotation of federal civilian employees training on the Indiana Army National Guard site before deploying.

For many this week is the first experience they have had in being around the U.S. military and becoming familiar with what it does and how it does it.

It is an experience that more federal employees will be experiencing this year and into the future.

The State Department will increase its numbers in Afghanistan from about 560 last year to 1,000 this year. The Department of Agriculture will send 55 civilian employees to Afghanistan this year.

Before they came to Indiana, the 20-plus federal civilians received training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va. "That gives you a flavor" of what it is like to be in Afghanistan and trying to work there. "This is more real. They get more out of it. They have to deal with [role playing] Afghans, and you’re not going home at night."

Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Ridings said, for the augmentees, "This is a totally different environment."

Even in his own experience, he found Afghanistan very different from his time in Iraq or his earlier time in Bosnia. Being in Afghanistan "requires a totally different mindset. They’re going to be working with the PRTs or a minister in Kabul, and [the Afghans] have to do" what is necessary in getting the work done.

For soldiers and civilians attitude is important. "It’s 90 percent of what we do."

In the simulated FOB, "The soldiers are learning too – what it is like to be working with the civilians, and the civilians are learning what it is like to be with the military."

Kevin Elder, one of the trainers with IDS International, said, "This gives the National Guard a new skill set" in preparing other federal agencies for deployment.

A former special forces officer, said, "We are doing the basics [with the augmentees] – getting in a military vehicle, moving around safely, seeing how the military works with the PRTs."

They are staying the week at a Forward Operating Base with wire, gates, checkpoints, roadblocks and soldiers carrying arms 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In the villages, there are the role players, goats, a donkey, a cow and chickens. "It gives them a proper gut check before they go down range." Adding, "I wish I had something like this before going down range."

Looking back at his year in Kansas, Riordan, the first USAID employee to be in the school, said, "It gives you the support you need – the experience in planning, decision-making and knowing who to go to and where to go."

Adding, "We need more integration before they go – USAID, State, the military, Justice. Hybrid officers are the future of where we are going" with specialized education similar to that he received at Leavenworth.

These hybrid officers from all federal agencies would remain focused for a career on a specific region, a goal that Defense Secretary Robert Gates set earlier this year.

Riordan is also realistic about the future and said, "Many [civilians] are not looking to come back for a second year." Inside the other agencies, "You can be penalized for being away too long and seen as an adrenaline junkie."

Riordan has never served in the armed forces and began as a Peace Corps volunteer. His academic studies were suited for traditional foreign service officers, but he did not want that kind of a career. "USAID is more open, getting my hands dirty. I’ve been out and about for the past 10 years."

Abbie Boyle, a British foreign service officer who volunteered to work in Helmand Province, said much the same thing about her career. "I like to think we helped" in preparing the Americans for Afghanistan.