We Served Too


Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice in the world when he could do something about it, but I am afraid he might just ask me the same question.

While I was in Afghanistan there were several American civilians killed in reconstruction and stabilization efforts. Some I knew, some I only knew of, but each death filled me with despair. It takes a special person to voluntarily leave everything they know and work in dangerous areas of the world. Some people go for financial reasons, some crave adventure, but the vast majority of aid workers go because they have a sincere desire to help people who are suffering. When you make the decision to go to work in danger zones you have to accept and make peace with the reality that you could die or be injured. But seeing such a person lose their life is heartbreaking.

In 2007, 29-year old USDA Forest Service employee, Tom Stefani, was killed when an armored vehicle he was riding in hit a roadside bomb. Working in Ghazni Province, he was developing and implementing an agricultural plan that included a poultry rearing facility, a cold storage facility and a grape production improvement project. While visiting an orphanage in Ghazni he learned that the children did not have enough toys and no playground equipment. He immediately launched a plan to raise money from family and friends for a playground for the orphanage. When Tom was killed his family created a fund to make sure his dream came true. In 2010, that dream became a reality as a playground dedicated to his memory was erected at the Ghazni orphanage and he would have been thrilled to hear the children laughing as they played on the equipment.

A fact that is often overlooked is that our wars are fought not only with soldiers, but with a great number of civilian workers going out alongside them. Civilian workers include military contractors who perform a myriad of tasks supporting military operations; government agency workers representing the U.S., journalists and nongovernmental (NGO) workers performing all kinds of missions — many of them humanitarian.

Most people don’t realize that in 2007 there were actually more civilian contractors in Iraq than combat troops and that in 2009 contractor deaths exceeded military deaths in Iraq. According to a 2013 report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR): “In September 2007, the United States had more than 170,000 combat personnel in Iraq as part of the counterinsurgency operation, with more than 171,000 contractors supporting the mission.” To date, 1569 U.S. contractors have died in Iraq and 65 have died as part of the war in Afghanistan.

The cost of war is high in blood and treasure and it can be deadly for civilians who choose to do their part to serve their country, to not only ensure freedom but also to try to make life better for the innocents who suffer the wraiths of war—disease, famine, poverty, displacement and terror.

When civilians serve in high threat security zones they are often not working with the same pre-deployment training or the same support during and after their deployments that military personnel receive. Yet they too get injured and killed. And even when they return home safely — mission completed — they and their families can still suffer considerable psychological strain in the months and even years to come. But there is no Veterans Health Administration for civilian workers to turn to for support. And sadly we as a society are still slow to recognize our hundreds of thousands of civilians who serve in high threat and danger zones.

While our military serviceman returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced disgraceful delays from the Veterans Health Administration to get their claims covered — civilian contractors who return from the battle space with similar injuries — including limbs blown off, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression also have difficulty in receiving the help they need to recover.

In terms of psychological well-being, a 2013 RAND study, “Out of the Shadows: The Health and Well-Being of Private Contractors Working in Conflict Zones” found evidence for PTSD in twenty-five percent of their sample, depression in eighteen percent, and alcohol misuse in over half the sample. And longer deployments and increased combat exposure was associated with higher rates of distress.

Serving in a combat zone, high threat or danger zone is just that — dangerous — and it’s time we recognized the hundreds of thousands of civilians who risk their lives for others.  A new organization, We Served Too (WS2), has been formed with the mission to raise awareness; conduct research; develop education materials; support resilience, health and well-being; and to create a web-based community, support network and information resource for those who are serving or have served in conflict and high threat security zones.

We will never win wars by how much money we spend or by how many people we kill. If we have any measure of success it will be the on-on-one interactions that we share, interactions that civilians are in a perfect position to initiate. It is in the exchanged smiles, the touch of a hand, the expression of compassion where they see we are not all infidels and we see they are not all terrorists that real success can be found. We who served too don’t need parades or medals, but we would like to know that someone remembers that we were also willing to lay down our lives for our country. We would like to be remembered for reaching out to those who are suffering around the world.

I used to pass by the flag pole at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and see the memorial marker stone for Tom Stefani and many times I would pick a rose and lay it there because I wanted Tom’s family and friends to know that in the war torn country he loved, he was remembered.


Why Creating Jobs Won’t Stop ISIS


Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph, – Haile Selassie

I served 26 months in Afghanistan as a USDA agricultural advisor from 2010-2012. I was a part of the historic Civilian Uplift that President Obama implemented at the same time as the military surge in 2010 and was part of a multi-discipline Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). The strategy was to put civilians in the most kinetic areas of Afghanistan to win hearts and minds by creating economic growth and stability. In other words – create jobs. The desired effect was that the insurgents would be so grateful for these opportunities they would lay down their weapons, stop attacking us and say goodbye to their old terrorizing ways.

Since 2001 we have spent over 2 trillion dollars in Afghanistan and before that 2 trillion in Iraq. That works out to $15 million dollars a day. Right now taxpayers are paying $10.54 million dollars for the costs of war in Afghanistan and Iraq every hour. In Iraq we have spent over $60 billion for reconstruction projects. The U.S. Special Inspector General along with Iraqi leaders judged the program to be a miserable failure. Instead of evaluating the effectiveness of reconstruction efforts and developing a strategy that might actually work we went on into Afghanistan with the thought process of “this should work; we just need to pump more money into it”. The U.S. spent over $104 billion on reconstruction from 2002 to June 2013 for business, agriculture, and other development projects, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR’s final report suggests a significant amount of money has been poured into questionable projects with little or no oversight, evaluation or follow-up. This lack of accountability by the American government led SIGAR to conclude that we threw billions of dollars into Afghanistan with no strategic planning about how to do it the right way and has had no lasting benefit.

And reconstruction efforts came with costs other than monetary. In Iraq 318 Americans (U.S. military, federal civilian employees, and U.S. civilian contractors) lost their lives in stabilization-related projects. At least 786 people were wounded while performing reconstruction or stabilization-related missions. It is estimated that a whopping 25 percent of civilians deployed to war zones suffer from PTSD, 18 percent met the criteria for depression and 50 percent alcohol abuse. In fact, a report showed that more civilians contracted by the U.S. were killed in war zones between January and June of 2010 than American soldiers – 250 civilians versus 235 service members. The cost in blood and treasure has been enormous and what do we have to show for it? We have ISIS and the resurgence of the Taliban to show for it.

I went to Afghanistan with the desire to help people in a country ravaged by 40 years of war. I naively thought that by trying to help the agricultural sector to become sustainable I would improve lives. Then I saw children being brought to the Forward Operating Base I was on with broken arms and legs to get medical attention from the French clinic there. The Taliban had pulled them from their homes and broken their limbs telling their parents that if they continued to cooperate with the Americans the next time they would kill them. I recall meeting a young boy, maybe five years old with his broken arm tied up in a red bandana sling. His huge brown eyes were looking at me in fear because I was an American. I still have nightmares about those eyes.

We meant well. Our hearts were in the right place, but all the money we spent, all the lives lost did not create the type of enduring jobs that the State Department talking points tout. It didn’t work in Iraq, it didn’t work in Afghanistan and it won’t work in the future. We are on the government learning curve, which is a circle and the result is that we never learn.

The only way to defeat the spread of ISIS and the many Phoenix like resurrections is to kill as many as we can as quickly as we can. Put all that money we spend trying to develop economic stability in war zones into annihilating these beyond evil, subhuman Islamic jihadists. Then let the countries themselves develop their own jobs. We cannot buy loyalty by throwing massive amounts of taxpayer’s dollars into other countries. It doesn’t work. It didn’t then. It won’t now. Terrorists don’t want jobs, they only want to terrorize.