I have worked for the U.S. government, its contractors, and NGOs to support stability and democratic transition in conflict and post-conflict zones in Sudan, Kenya, Libya, and Syria. I usually travel alone and work predominantly with locals and a few other frontline civilians making it difficult to communicate with friends and family back home. In these places, I have heard and seen daily gunfire and explosions for months without reprieve, experienced personal threats to my security, forced deportation, nearby car bombs, gunmen disrupting my meetings, bullets found lodged in the buildings and lawn furniture of my living quarters, and ongoing surveillance. Returning to an environment where nobody had shared my experiences in these particular places was like awaking from long, stressful dream to a society that hadn’t drastically changed—even though I had.
Would I do it again? Absolutely.
I have knowingly accepted the risk to body and mind that accompanies civilian work on the frontlines of U.S. foreign policy initiatives, taking reasonable steps to mitigate risk for my team and myself. Anyone who has served in extremely volatile environments knows that diplomatic relationships, trust, and partnerships can be neither built nor easily sustained from the outside. I whole-heartedly agree with Secretary Kerry who said that “if we are going to bring light to the world, we have to go where it is dark. That is the meaning of service, and… We must depoliticize the risks that our diplomats and development professionals encounter… With the right training, people, facilities, and equipment, we can manage and mitigate risk.” We must continue to advance initiatives to move this forward, especially the development of best practices for working in complex and dangerous environments and improving adaptability of planning and assistance.
Like our military service members, frontline civilians sometimes sustain temporary or lasting physical, mental, and emotional injuries. Unlike veterans, however, most are on their own or have only limited access to assistance that prepares them to be resilient, or that supports them during and after they are deployed.
When I returned to the U.S. in 2009 after two years working on the north-south border of Sudan, I experienced an occasional but persistent eye twitch, stutter, and paranoia that I was still being surveilled. My employer offered no support for these ‘side effects’ of prolonged exposure to stress and threat, and for that matter offered only the standard leave package that it also offered to its U.S.-based employees. After nearly a year and half in Libya, I headed to the Rocky Mountains for several months to ratchet down my nerves.
Finally, after working briefly on USG’s Syria response from southern Turkey—where anxiety from previous deployments was reactivated—I had a blow-out argument with someone I love, which turned out to be the last straw for my brain’s ability to control my body’s fight-or-flight response; for several weeks, adrenaline rushes coursed through my arms and legs in response to thinking for even a moment about certain stressors. Fortunately, USAID’s staff care center took me in, allowed me several free consultations with a counselor, and referred me to outside resources for longer-term assistance at my own cost. But much more is needed.
Peer support groups and mentorship programs for staff working in dangerous locations, updating courses to emphasize resilience, and revisiting policies to attract and retain qualified and resilient employees at high-threat, high-risk posts would be steps in the right direction. Additional flexibility in procurement processes for wellness items at expeditionary posts and availability of psychological services to people while at post can also be improved, as should proactive outreach to frontline civilians who have experienced trauma while serving overseas. These benefits also need to be extended to contracted and NGO-hired employees who serve US foreign policy priorities in dangerous places. To be sure, the 2015 QDDR heartened my sense that all those who serve will begin to receive the support that they need and deserve.
Frontline civilians witness both the best and worst sides of human nature during war, atrocity, and disaster. I have friends and colleagues who have survived improvised explosive attacks and terrorist attacks, have been abducted, and continue to absorb the violent loss of friends and colleagues with whom we work in partnership while overseas. Many of them work side-by-side with U.S. military counterparts, and others are lone foreigners working alongside local residents in some of the world’s toughest places to survive and stay optimistic that conditions will get better. Many of them continue serving the greater good in this way for years and even decades. This, as Secretary Kerry emphasizes, requires more support and recognition for civilians who serve in critical frontline roles. It also requires more widespread recognition—among Congress and the American public—that in order to build peace and partnership, and to strengthen America’s influence overseas, we cannot afford to shrink from risk or shame leaders and individuals who make hard decisions to take risks, but should honor them.