Supporting Those Who Serve - All of Them

By Janine Davidson

Last night, as I was flipping through the TV channels I stumbled upon the ABC special, "America United in Support of Our Troops."

This 2-hour prime-time extravaganza, filmed on the beach near Camp Pendleton in California, included such stars as Janet Jackson, Snoop Dog, Toby Keith, and Pamela Anderson (whose cleavage, evidently, was so dramatic it required ABC to use their logo to block the sight from TV viewers as she bounced - literally - around the stage). Comedy and good taste aside, this event highlighted how far we have come as a nation in our respect and support for our troops - both institutionally as well as among the American people. It also highlighted for me, how many others serving in these same combat zones and around the world need and deserve the same support for their patriotic and selfless service.

As Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates has made perfectly clear in speech after speech, the military cannot do this job alone. "One of the most important lessons from our experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere," he says, "has been the decisive role reconstruction, development, and governance plays in any meaningful, long-term success." These decisive non-military tasks require civilian experts from myriad professions and disciplines to deploy right along side our men and women in uniform. Indeed, thousands of civilian civil servants from government agencies like the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Justice, the Department of Treasury, and the State Department are serving in dangerous theaters along with tens of thousands of contractors. (The vast majority of these contractors, by the way, are not involved in, nor deserving of the negative headlines associated with careless security contractors like Blackwater.)

Unfortunately, our system has yet to catch up to the requirements of this reality. While a few leaders and politicians have highlighted the need to recruit even more civilians into this line of work to balance the over-burdened military, few have recognized the barriers these patriotic professionals face. Civilians deploying to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere do not share the level of bureaucratic and institutional support their colleagues in uniform enjoy from their organizations - and from the American people. Pre-deployment training is sub-par or non-existent - especially when it comes to personal protection. They are not trained in the use of weapons and if they are killed in the line of duty there is no comparable family notification system or life insurance. Many civilians have even purchased their own body-armor since it is not standard-issue. When they return, there is little to no support for hardships like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, much less, as I discovered recently - a simple "thank you."

The other night I had dinner with a close colleague who works for USAID. This woman is a counterinsurgency expert who is frequently sent abroad to dangerous locations. On returning from her most recent trip, exhausted and in a bit of a daze as she made her way through immigration at Dulles, she could hear the agents saying "welcome home" as they checked passports. But when it was her turn the agent flipped through her documents and said "Ok, next."

"Aren't you going to say, 'welcome home'?" she asked. "No ma'am, we only say that to military folks."

"But, I was over there too." she protested. "I work for the US government, see the official passport."

"Sorry ma'am, you are not in the military."

My friend said, "I know it sounds emotional, but you know, when there is no one there to meet you, that little 'welcome home' really means a lot to me." As she told me this story I was reminded of the time I found myself on a layover at Dallas-Fort Worth when the local opera came out to serenade a plane-load of troops coming back from Iraq. Hundreds of locals were also there to cheer as they deplaned. It was one of the most moving things I have ever seen.

As last night's TV special made perfectly clear, long gone are the days when war-weary vets are greeted with jeers from an unhappy public upon their return from the front - but we still have a long way to go. Getting Congress to allocate the resources and bureaucratic support civilian officials and contractors need to get their jobs done will take time. But in the meantime, the least we regular Americans can do for these patriotic professionals is say, "Welcome Home" and "Thank you for your service."

By washingtonpost.com |  September 8, 2008; 10:19 PM ET  | Category:  Civil-Military Relations , Counterinsurgency , Counterterrorism , Veterans
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Excellent post! So many beyond the military are involved in the effort and they deserve our thanks too.

Posted by: Jack | September 9, 2008 3:04 PM

Less than two months to the election, and John McCain and Barack Obama make daily promises and are promoting all sorts of programs and ideas to win over voters. Not only limited to presidential candidates, our representatives and the state and local levels also spend with abandon, thinking nothing of deficit spending and increasing the federal or state debt. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is staging an intervention to end Washington’s addiction to debt and deficit spending. For more information, visit www.usbudgetwatch.org or check out our Facebook page.

Posted by: KateBerenato | September 10, 2008 2:51 PM

As a United States diplomat serving overseas for several years, I agree with the author's point that all those who spend long periods far from home and family on government assignment deserve recognition. From the President's message on Patriots Day to countless shout-outs during sporting events, Americans are regularly - and rightly - reminded to thank those serving and defending in uniform overseas. Civil servants and the diplomatic corps, on the other hand, are rarely mentioned. The public needs to be educated on the role of all foreign affairs agencies and how we work independently and in concert with the military to advocate and advance U.S. policy and interests. The leadership of the various foreign affairs agencies should take a greater role in this - why should Gates have to do it for them? - as should the media, because it is a matter of public education.

That said, I believe the example cited in the article is an anomaly. Every time I return to the United States on my diplomatic passport, including to Dulles, Minneapolis, Newark, JFK, and Houston, Immigration officers at the port of entry have made a point of welcoming me home. On every entry except one in the seven years since September 11, the officer has noted the dip passport and asked where I worked and what I did, then followed up with a kind comment such as "Welcome Home" or "Keep up the good work."

Posted by: Anonymous | September 11, 2008 12:16 AM

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