War on Terrorism

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Civilians Step Up to Support Wartime Mission

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 10, 2011 – The fact that he already had deployed about “a million times” while in the Air Force didn’t deter him, and neither did the potential dangers or austere conditions facing him in the Middle East.

Ten years after leaving the military, Mark Parsons was back to serve again -- this time as a civilian.

“I want to make an impact,” said Parsons, who is embarking on a yearlong deployment in Iraq. “I want someone to know that when Mark Parsons left, that he served his country and he did all he could.”

Parsons is one of thousands of civilians supporting wartime missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other missions around the world, as part of the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce.

The program formally stood up in January 2009 to create a structured civilian force able to supplement military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other contingency and humanitarian missions around the world, explained Seth Shulman, the Pentagon’s director of international human resources programs in the office of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

These civilians are not only filling a crucial need overseas, but are helping to alleviate a decade of strain and stress on the force, he said.

“Because of the sheer numbers of people having to do multiple tours of duty, there is a strain on individual members of the military,” Shulman said. “CEW was stood up to provide qualified civilians to carry out some of the responsibilities that military members carry out.”

It doesn’t make sense to have service members behind a desk when civilians are more than qualified to take on that role, he noted, freeing up troops to focus on the mission.

Today, about 4,000 civilians are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and about 500 to other locations such as Qatar and Djibouti, Shulman said.

“You can’t underestimate the impact civilians have had and will continue to have,” he said.

Civilians from all walks of life and expertise have stepped up to serve in the CEW, he said, ranging from military veterans with years of experience and multiple deployments under their belts to government civilians with extensive subject-matter knowledge, to private-sector experts without any military affiliation at all.

The civilians’ expertise is as varied as their backgrounds, varying from mechanics and logistics to contracting and the law, Shulman noted. Parsons, for example, is a program manager at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and an Air Force veteran. In Iraq, he’ll support overseas travel and training for Iraqi forces.

Without an age limit, volunteers range in age from their early 20s to late 60s, Shulman said, with the majority of volunteers in their 40s and 50s. Since they’re expected to hit the ground running, most civilians are established in their careers, he explained, and that expertise typically comes later in life.

Whether a recent college graduate or a seasoned professional, all volunteers are required to complete an 11-day predeployment course at Camp Atterbury and Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana, about an hour and a half south of Indianapolis, before they deploy, he said.

The course, which stood up as a pilot program last year, teaches students how to work and live in an austere environment and informs them of their benefits and entitlements. The course is split into two segments: know yourself and know your environment. Students learn how to cope and operate as part of a team, as well as how to work and live in a foreign culture.

The course also delves into the sometimes complex culture of the U.S. military.

“For people who have never worked with the military before, it’s generally more of a challenge,” Shulman said. “And getting them used to working in theater with military also is a challenge because they’re not used to working with the military in a contingency or combat operation.”

It’s an adjustment for the service members as well, he acknowledged. “They may have to treat civilians a little different than military members,” he said.

However, these challenges are surmountable ones and the program’s benefits far outweigh any rough spots in the road, he said.

Based on positive feedback and mission successes, civilians are proving invaluable assets, Shulman said.

“We continually get asked for more and more,” he said. “We’ve been able to fill a large number of positions and constantly fill additional positions. People look to us now as a sourcing solution to meet their mission requirements.”

With a steady flow of civilians heading overseas, Shulman said officials now are working to ensure their deployment runs as smooth as possible. They’ve smoothed out issues with medical care and with medical evacuations, he said, and are developing family care programs.

Civilians who deploy, for example, now have access to the Defense Department’s Military OneSource website, which is packed with information, resources and offers round-the-clock support.

Officials also are working on a two- to three-day program to help civilians reintegrate with their families and the work force, Shulman said.

“We work continuously to improve the potential for civilians to be given every possible advantage while they’re deployed,” he said.

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