Civilians at War

More and more federal employees and contractors are donning uniforms for military operations as a scaled-back Defense Department looks outside its ranks for technical expertise.


More and more federal employees and contractors are donning uniforms for military operations as a scaled-back Defense Department looks outside its ranks for technical expertise.


t was a winter day in Bosnia, clear and cold. The small team of U.S. soldiers had been snowed in for a week, camped in a remote, muddy field, when a Chinook helicopter seemed to drop out of the sky, landing just outside the concertina wire surrounding the small cluster of tents.

Team chief Maj. Thomas Wilhelm wasn't expecting visitors. He hustled out to the landing zone, prepared for anything but the heavy-set, gray-haired woman clad in Army battle fatigues slogging through the mud and rotor wash.

By her size and the way she wore the camouflage uniform, Wilhelm knew immediately the woman was not a soldier. But when she produced a big-screen television, a videocassette recorder and a box of movies for the entertainment-starved troops, there was no question whose side she was on.

The angel of mercy, an Army morale, welfare and recreation specialist, is one of hundreds of Defense Department civilian employees deployed for Operation Joint Endeavor. From boosting morale to running bath and laundry facilities to maintaining sophisticated weapons, Defense Department civilians and contractors are playing an increasingly important role in military operations.

"There might have been a time in the past when the site of a military operation was an exclusive club" for those in uniform, Wilhelm says. But those days are waning. One in 10 Americans deployed for the NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia is a civilian. By contrast, 1 in 50 Americans deployed for the Persian Gulf war was a civilian.

The growing reliance on civilians to conduct military operations is not lost on Pentagon planners. "More and more civilians are assuming roles during deployments," says Diane Disney, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy. Contractors and civilians have been participating in military operations since Vietnam, but never at current levels. Three factors have contributed to the trend: deep cuts in uniformed personnel, a push to privatize functions that can be done outside the military, and a growing reliance on contractors to maintain increasingly sophisticated weapons.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Defense Department has cut more than 700,000 active-duty troops from the ranks. To preserve as many combat positions as possible, the services have turned over many support jobs to Defense civilians and private contractors.

"One of our aims was to move the uniformed personnel out of positions civilians can do. It's just a more efficient use of resources," Disney says.

It can also be politically expedient, says Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of Defense for manpower during the Reagan Administration. "When you're sending in forces, everybody's obsessed with the number of troops deploying"-something President Clinton was keenly aware of when he promised to limit to 20,000 the number of troops deployed to Bosnia for the unpopular peacekeeping mission. Clinton wasn't counting the 2,200 civilians and contractors that went along to support them. "You can keep the numbers down and send in [the contractors] to make up the difference," Korb says.

The trend raises a number of issues. Those in uniform must be prepared, tactically and psychologically, to deal with and accommodate civilians in military operations. Before they are placed in harm's way, civilians need to know their rights and responsibilities, how they will be trained and what happens if they are captured, injured or killed. For private contractors, such matters are governed by their employer's contract with the Defense Department and by international agreements between the United States and other governments. Federal personnel regulations determine those things for Defense civilian employees.

"Any time you have civilians participating in military operations you increase the number of problems. The problems aren't insurmountable, but it does increase the difficulty," Korb says.

The challenges range from integrating civilians into a highly structured military culture and demanding operational environment to ensuring they have the proper gear and weapons, and the training to use them, before deploying to potentially hostile areas.

Trained and Ready

Gary Higgins, a supervisor at Sierra Army Depot in California, was one of hundreds of Defense civilians who trained at the Army's Combat Maneuver Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany, before deploying to Bosnia. The week-long winter training exercise in which he participated was intense and strenuous. "You're out there just like the troops-poking in the ground looking for mines, reacting to hostile situations with the platoon leader. We'd hit the deck and crawl in the mud with [the soldiers]," he says. Sharing a drafty tent with 15 others in freezing weather during training also prepared him for what he was to encounter in Bosnia. The training was realistic enough that one man in his crew got frostbite.

The training was designed to prepare civilians for military life in the field. Brown & Root Inc., the Defense contractor with the greatest number of personnel deployed for the Bosnia mission, provided similar training-minus the cold weather-in Houston for its employees before deployment. Besides learning basic first aid and survival skills, civilians were trained to use small arms in the event military officials authorized handguns for civilians (they did not), to spot and avoid land mines and to use the military gear and clothing they were issued.

Higgins, who served in Vietnam with the Navy, deployed from mid-December through mid-February to serve as a technical adviser in the construction of base camps with shower and recreation facilities. The camps he helped construct near Tuzla were a vast improvement over the muddy encampments of wooden outhouses and unheated tents most troops lived in early in the deployment.

Not only do civilians need to be prepared for working in a military environment, but uniformed troops need to understand the role of civilians. Military field exercises are evolving to incorporate civilians in various battlefield scenarios. Wilhelm first noticed the integrated use of civilians in field exercises during infantry training at Hohenfels in 1993. What seemed like "interesting" training in 1993 became extremely relevant in 1996 in Bosnia, where civilians and contractors are playing such an extensive role, he says.

Besides the recreation specialist who surprised his remotely deployed team, Wilhelm also worked with civilian linguists and contractors, some of whom had deployed more often for military operations than some of the troops. He never experienced a situation where civilians were a liability during operations. "They're part of the plan. They're not wild cards," Wilhelm says.

About 2,000 Defense civilians are designated "emergency essential" employees, says Disney. As such, they have agreed in writing to accompany U.S. troops during operations if their skills are needed. But that doesn't mean civilians who aren't designated emergency essential aren't being tapped for deployment.

"When you get right down to it, most any civilian with any type of technical skill is subject to being designated as emergency essential. It may not happen; it probably won't happen. But the possibility is there," says Edward Canady, the Army's program manager for civilian mobilization and deployment. The Army has deployed many civilians who weren't previously designated as emergency essential, he says.

Emergency essential employees generally know the units they would deploy with and train with those units. In addition, military leadership courses are increasingly addressing the role of civilians in operations, Canady says.

Army and Air Force officials say their services are turning to civilians with increasing frequency to conduct military operations as the services find themselves playing a greater role in peacekeeping missions. A Navy spokesman said the same is true of the Navy, but officials in the Navy's Office of Civilian Personnel Management declined to discuss the issue.

Because the Army has taken the largest share of personnel cuts and has the greatest role in recent peacekeeping missions, it finds itself relying most heavily on civilians.

Nowhere does this reliance seem greater than at the Army Materiel Command. Of a 700-member "core rapid deployment force" AMC is developing to quickly respond to contingency operations, nearly 500 positions will be civilian. "Had I given you those numbers four or five years ago there would probably have been fewer than 200 civilians in the force," says George Jones, deputy chief of staff for personnel at AMC.

"They've cut our green-suit force to an extent that we've had to civilianize many positions," he says. Where Army military police used to secure the vast stores of munitions and sensitive equipment managed by AMC, civilian security officers now patrol. Where noncommissioned officers used to test and calibrate weapons, civilian technicians are now doing the work. At depots, civilians provide the bulk of logistics support.

Dangerous Duty

Most civilians deployed for military missions serve at the "rear" of the battlefield. But that is no guarantee they won't see combat. The single deadliest incident during the Persian Gulf war occurred when an Iraqi scud missile hit a barracks housing Army Reservists providing water purification support far from the front. Today, the military relies heavily on contractors for such support. When a bomb devastated a U.S. military office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last November, four Defense Department civilians were killed along with one soldier.

Not only have battle lines become muddied, but as the military learned in Somalia, peacekeeping can be as deadly as war.

It is up to the operational theater commander whether civilians and contractors carry weapons for self-protection. In Bosnia they are not authorized to carry weapons, although civilians interviewed had undergone military training to use and maintain handguns should the need arise.

Driving through war-devastated villages in Bosnia, images of snipers crossed Paul Mizeur's mind. Mizeur, who says he "sort of volunteered" for his first deployment from the Sierra Army Depot, never encountered any snipers but was aware of the danger. "I figured if anybody started shooting there were enough GIs around. We could have hidden and let those guys take care of it," says B.J. Ritz, another civilian from Sierra.

While civilians may be authorized to carry sidearms on some deployments, they may decline to carry them. Military regulations require the services to provide protection for civilian personnel, whether they are contractors or Defense employees. Even if authorized, contractors and civilians may only carry government-issued sidearms and only after they have been trained to use them for self-protection.

Civilians deployed to Haiti during the U.S. intervention there say they also felt secure, despite not being authorized to carry handguns. Ralph Leonard, an industrial specialist with the Defense Logistics Agency, returned in April from a five-month stint in Haiti. "It wasn't really a dangerous environment as long as you followed the standard operating procedures," he says. Military rules required vehicles moving outside military compounds to travel in pairs, with at least one armed person per vehicle. That ensured civilians never traveled without protection.

Jim McLaughlin, a team leader with the Soldier Systems Support Command in Natick, Mass., says carrying a weapon wouldn't have made him feel any more secure while he was in Bosnia in January and February. "In that particular situation I think a weapon would have been more of a hindrance or a burden. I felt fairly safe and we didn't have any incidents," he says.

When asked if he had any problems working with the military during his two-month deployment, McLaughlin could only come up with one thing. "The one problem is getting used to wearing the uniform. You've got to have everything just right."

Civilians often are issued BDUs, military parlance for the camouflage battle dress uniform, on deployments. They are practical and ensure U.S. personnel present a uniform image. To outsiders anyway.

"You can always pick out the civilians. They never can get their uniforms right," says Wilhelm.

Culture Clash

Whether it's the crease in the bill of the field cap or the placement of a badge or patch, uniformed troops have turned dressing into a science, or perhaps an obsession, if you're a civilian trying to blend in on a deployment. While it's a source of more amusement than heartburn, the way uniforms are worn is only one of many ways civilians and military personnel find themselves at cultural odds.

Military personnel are used to taking orders and following rules few civilians are familiar with. They are conditioned to working in a highly structured environment, where rank matters, on and off duty. And during military operations, personnel are rarely off duty.

Eric Carpenter, another technical adviser from Sierra with no previous military experience, says there were times when his appearance, despite the uniform, drew unwanted attention from military personnel. "They'd ask me what my unit was because I didn't have the military hairdo. A couple of times I was asked why I didn't salute."

Soldiers, sailors and airmen take for granted military operations will require long hours with little sleep and that they'll have little privacy or free time. For civilians, this can be a shock. While they may be prepared for the long work hours, they aren't used to being restricted during nonwork hours.

"I'm sure there are some difficulties integrating the cultures," Canady says. "There have been some isolated conflicts between civilian and military personnel. But as a whole, I'd say the problems are minimal. When you get right down to it, it's the commanders' responsibility to make things work, and they live up to that responsibility. They take the [personnel] resources they have and they turn them into a team."

Disney agrees. "You've got to keep in mind we're not talking about random civilians in the general populace. We're talking about highly trained people who work for the Department of Defense. They have a well-above-average familiarity with the military. It's not as if these people are from a totally different world," she says.

So far, Pentagon officials don't believe increased deployments are affecting the Defense Department's ability to attract and keep civilians, who may not have bargained for a career in the field.

"We don't see any problem with retention," Disney says. "It's not like I'm going to walk into an office and say 'You, Bosnia!' You're looking at relatively small numbers of people who tend to know if they're likely to deploy. If anything, we have more volunteers [for deployment] than we can use."

As the civilian readiness program manager for the Air Force, Peggy Snelling says finding volunteers for deployments hasn't been difficult. "I think there are more civilians receptive to deploying than is recognized." When the Air Force last fall put out a call for civilian recreation specialists to serve in Guantanamo Bay over the winter holidays, some were concerned it would be difficult to find takers. Instead, the Air Force found itself turning away volunteers.

If trends continue, the requests for volunteers will mount and military personnel will find themselves working alongside civilians and contractors more often. While the services have not been consistently tracking deployments of civilian personnel and contractors, Defense officials say the increased reliance on them is unmistakable.

Growing Trend

During the Persian Gulf war, for example, Pentagon records show there were 9,200 contractors and 5,200 civilians deployed to support a military force of 541,000. No records were maintained to show the participation of civilians and contractors in operations in Somalia, Rwanda or Haiti. But by mid-May, the Pentagon estimated there were about 600 civilians and 1,400 contractors deployed to support 22,000 troops in the Bosnia peacekeeping mission. (Not all troops and civilians are serving in Bosnia. Some are supporting the mission in Hungary, Croatia and Macedonia.) If anything, the numbers are conservative. A few weeks earlier there were nearly 800 civilians serving overseas for the Bosnia mission.

"At any given time the numbers change and sometimes the contractors don't all [get counted]," says David Hyde, an assistant to Disney. To better track the deployments of Defense civilian employees in the future, the Pentagon is developing a plan to issue bar-coded civilian identification cards. Emergency essential employees and those who are being deployed will be issued the cards first. Eventually, all Defense civilian employees may carry the cards, Disney says. No changes are planned for tracking Defense contractor personnel, who are supposed to check in with the local commander when they arrive in the theater of operations.

Despite the soft numbers, the trend is unmistakable: Civilians and contractors represented less than 3 percent of the total force during the Persian Gulf war, and they now represent 9 percent of the force deployed to Bosnia. And those figures don't account for the civilians and contractors deployed worldwide, supporting the far-flung missions in which the military is becoming increasingly involved.

Pressures from personnel and budget cuts are forcing the military to look to the private sector for more support.

"There's always been pressure on the military to use more outside people, particularly since we've had an all-volunteer force," says Korb. That pressure has increased tremendously since the military began downsizing after the Cold War. "What you end up with is a situation where you've got a lot to do but don't have as many people to do it."

"The Pentagon's got to take a good look at this since this seems to be an increasing fact of life," Korb says. "Forewarned is forearmed."

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