Civilians weighing deployment to war zones should know what they're getting into.
"When I left the Green Zone . . . I was armed with an AK-47 and body armor. Thankfully, however, I never discharged a weapon while there," says Doug Hageman. If this sounds like an unusual statement for a soldier, it's because Hageman isn't one. He's an Army civilian who deployed to Baghdad in 2004 to work on reconstruction.
Historically, civilians have played a vital role in military operations. From the teamsters who drove supply wagons for Gen. George Washington's Continental Army to the highly skilled technicians and administrators who account for and maintain today's high-tech weapons and communications, civilians have accompanied soldiers in combat. Providing support allows troops to focus fully on the warfighting role that is theirs alone. In the past, civilian employees typically were not deployed to a war zone until the area was stable and danger was minimized. Today they operate in areas where hostilities continue, and they face many of the same dangers and challenges as soldiers.
How are civilians tapped for these assignments? Why would the government send them? Why would they go? With patriotism instilled in Americans, these tours of duty can evoke images of making a difference for our country. Perhaps seeing foreign lands and cultures appeals to others. Financial considerations sometimes top the list. The realities, however, should influence an individual's decision to go.
Civilian deployment will grow as more military-to-civilian job conversions occur, especially in support functions such as personnel, safety, security, resource management, and logistics. Many Army positions have been identified as emergency essential, those that would remain overseas in the event of an evacuation or that could be sent overseas when a need arises. Civilians who were not previously emergency essential can be reclassified if their particular skills are needed. Management has the authority to order civilian employees overseas, but it has long been Army policy to request volunteers first.
John Fix, an Army aviation safety officer, was ordered to go to Uzbekistan in 2001. "A local national died during the process of setting up a defensive perimeter for the camp, and then there was a mad rush to get a safety professional on site. I was notified on 18 December 2001 to deploy . . . and had boots on the ground in K2 Uzbekistan on 28 December 2001."
Civilians in the Balkans, an area with longtime U.S. military presence, experience a much different environment than do those in Iraq. And the environment can change even within the same war zone. Raymond Dalinsky, also a member of an Army safety office, was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2003. Initially he lived in bombed-out aircraft hangars and then in a 10-person tent.
Those who are thinking about volunteering must weigh factors such as finances or career enhancement against deterrents such as health and safety concerns, family separations and austere living conditions.
Sometimes civilian employees are motivated by financial considerations. A number of allowances can apply, such as hardship differential and danger pay, and other considerations include overtime, salary caps and taxes.
Hardship differential provides additional compensation in foreign locations with difficult living conditions, excessive physical hardship or unhealthful conditions. The pay rate ranges from 5 percent to 25 percent of base salary. Danger pay is given to those who face physical harm or imminent danger from civil insurrection or war, terrorism or wartime conditions. It also ranges from 5 percent to 25 percent of base pay. Both rates, determined by the State Department, are 25 percent for Iraq and Afghanistan. Deployed civilians often work countless overtime hours, sometimes putting in 12-hour days six or seven days per week. Recruitment or relocation bonuses also might be offered.
The potential to increase income is great, but there are limits. The earnings cap is $116,500. For the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, the cap was raised to $131,400.
Unlike military members and contractors for whom all or a portion of deployment salary is tax-free, federal employees are not exempt. For some, this is a major disincentive, considering employees are right there on the battlefield sharing the same living conditions and the same threat danger zones.
Other benefits are less tangible but just as real. Donna Best, an Army human resource specialist who served in Kosovo, says her favorite part of the assignment was getting to meet a variety of people, military and civilian, from all over the world who came together to complete a mission. The Army's Max Blumenfield, who deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in 2003, says, "Conducting public affairs operations in a wartime environment was the ultimate professional experience. . . . The stressful challenges but sense of job satisfaction from successfully telling the soldiers' story to U.S., regional and international audiences cannot be duplicated in any other setting."
One of the best experiences, deployed employees say, was working directly with soldiers and being part of a cohesive team that got a job done regardless of the obstacles. Some credit their success to the fact that they were retired military, so they had firsthand knowledge of the mission. Others say differences between civilians and service members are almost nonexistent except that one group carries weapons. Soldiers frequently are surprised to see so many deployed civilians wearing battle-dress uniforms or working long days.
No matter the specific assignment, conditions overseas are austere. It's true, deployed civilians receive free housing and meals, but those sent to some operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes live in tents without air conditioning. Bathrooms are scarce and rustic, and privacy is almost nonexistent. "I lived with field grade officers in a 'Bedouin' tent that was supposed to bunk about 75 but rapidly grew to about 160 cots," says Blumenfield. "Latrines had doors and showers had curtains. Lines were frequently very long, and warm water was the exception."
Harsh conditions include dust, mud and temperature extremes, ranging from the heat of an Iraqi summer to the cold winters of the Balkans and Afghanistan. "The desert sand is almost like a talcum powder and creeps into every crevice," Blumenfield says. Food often consists of field rations such as MREs, or meals ready to eat. Some people report weight losses or gains of 15 pounds while deployed.
Exposure to combat varies. Some in Iraq wear bulletproof vests and helmets and travel in convoys with armed soldiers. Bill Templeton "witnessed mortar attacks . . . several gun battles . . . I was shot at while exercising (bicycle riding)."
By far the greatest challenge for civilian employees is family separations. Deployed assignments commonly last at least 179 days. Technology, however, allows frequent contact by phone, e-mail and video teleconferencing, and those at home can join Family Support Group activities. And Army One Source, a 24/7 toll-free number staffed by consultants, provides free short-term problem resolution for family and marital issues, reintegration and grief counseling for deployed troops and civilians. Volunteering is a personal decision that requires careful weighing of the pros and cons. Deployment is not a good choice for anyone seeking a stress-free job in a comfortable environment. Those with a sense of adventure might want to give it consideration. But for many, the opportunity to make a real difference and the sense of pride in service make up for the sacrifices.