Volunteering for Iraq

Posted by Brian Heath
November 23, 2007
Lahore, Pakistan

Yesterday, State Department employees around the world logged on to their computers to find two cables - one from Secretary Rice and another from Director General Harry Thomas - announcing with equal parts triumph and relief that all 252 positions in Iraq for the Summer 2008 transfer cycle had been filled on a voluntary basis. After all the hand wringing, the embarrassment of a cathartic internal town hall meeting made public, the misinformed press stories about "soft diplomats," and the sometimes amateurish scramble by Human Resources to develop a policy and respond to concerns about directed assignments (the first time the Department had contemplated such a policy since the Vietnam War), it turns out there was no need for directed assignments after all. I wasn't surprised.

The Foreign Service I know and am proud to be a part of is an organization that invariably rises to meet a challenge. Indeed, more than 1,500 of my colleagues have served in Iraq since 2003. Three have been killed.

I am one of those who came forward in recent weeks and volunteered for assignment to Iraq, not because I received a letter euphemistically identifying me as a "prime candidate" (I didn't), but because I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate to myself, the Department, and yes, even the Iraqi people, that my skills and talents could make a positive contribution in our combined efforts to bring stability to the country. Idealistic? Perhaps, but not a decision I made lightly and without first doing a fair amount of research and reflection.

There are nearly 11,500 people in the Foreign Service (roughly 6,500 generalists and 5,000 specialists) and at least as many reasons for volunteering or not volunteering to go to Iraq. Much as politicians of a certain generation are asked whether or not they served in Vietnam, I believe whether or not one served in Iraq will be a question asked of future leaders in the Foreign Service. Serving in Iraq doesn't and should never guarantee promotion, and there are certainly valid reasons for not going. Nevertheless, it's a question people will ask, even if only to themselves.

I may or may not have voted for President Bush in the last election and I may or may not personally support the administration's Iraq policy, but as a career Foreign Service Officer my job is to implement the foreign policies of the United States to the best of my ability. There is no foreign policy objective more important than Iraq and that won't change with the next presidential election. I have tremendous respect for Ambassador Crocker and the team he has assembled in Iraq. If there was ever a group that can turn things around, this is it. I want to be a part of it.

Of course, there's also the money - it would be disingenuous to say this wasn't a consideration. A typical Foreign Service Officer receives various incentive payments (danger pay, hardship differential, overtime differential, etc.) while serving in Iraq, which nearly double his or her salary. I'll take it, but I also would have volunteered if the monetary benefits were less generous. If you're going to Iraq for the money, you're going for the wrong reason and should seriously reconsider.

Iraq assignments are unique and therefore require Foreign Service Officers to put aside criteria we might typically use to evaluate whether a particular position is likely to be professionally and personally rewarding. For example, as I researched positions on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and at Regional Embassy Offices (REOs), I quickly learned that things like being able to interact in person with local contacts on a regular basis and having one's own bathroom - pretty much givens in any other country of assignment - were benefits of some but not all positions. Ultimately, I accepted an offer to be director of the REO in Al Hillah, which supports five PRTs that cover the South Central provinces of Babil, Najaf, Karbala, Qadisiyah, and Wasit.

Consistently throughout my career I have found the reality of an assignment differs to a degree from one's expectations regardless of the amount of preparation. Right now, REO Al Hillah is in growth mode as part of the "diplomatic surge" and I am encouraged by press reports indicating violence in Iraq has declined in recent weeks. However, with nearly a year to go before arriving in country, I'm preparing for the unexpected.



November 23, 2007

Foer writes:

There is no volunteer at the State Department. If 'you' received a letter to go to China, would you refuse to volunteer? If assignments can be refused, the pay needs to reflect that and the union agreement needs to be renegotiatied.

The pay incentives really aren't needed.

The three dead. These all broke the rules. The rules say 'stay in the zone and don't do anything.' That was the job. This isn't understood?

Holland left and got another person killed while she went out to enforce a policy she knew would increase the chance of an attack WAY beyond security limits. She worked for Mercy Corps, then the Provisional Authority, then not the CIA? Her escort should have been informed he was going to his deaath because that is what she knew. Everyone with her training knew this.

We should open all Foreign Service assignments to anyone with qualifications. They can be trained to do this work in six to eight weeks in country or in the U.S.

Syrian P.
November 24, 2007

SNP in Syria writes:

LOL, why calls them U.S. Diplomats serving in Iraq. Say the truth; they are enforcing U.S. occupation of a Muslim country. Aiding and abetting in genocide, war crimes and gross human rights violations that by far had acceded the worst of terrorist states like Israel crimes against humanity. What else besides killing innocent women and children, theft of oil resources and help building the world's largest group of military bases and Embassy do these U.S. diplomat volunteers do? Let me guess… Hand out hand washing instruction and don't drink the unsafe river water leaflets. Oh no, they are facilitating the immigration to safe country of millions of helpless Iraqis to the United State, busy issuing visas to those escaping the genocide and leaving the oil fields for XOM to secure it. You may fool those 99.998% of illiterate and undereducated Americans with a nice line of P.R., but the people of the Middle East do have news freedom, (restricted by AIPAC in America) and knows the true mission and goals of the Americans in Iraq and the whole petrol loaded region.

Virginia, USA
November 24, 2007

Anne in Virginia writes:

Brian: Congratulations on your decision! I couldn't have said it better myself... Your posting was a breath of fresh air after so much angst and anger that John Matel's posting has generated.

It sounds like you''e got all the right reasons for going to Iraq -- very similar to mine, to be honest. I salute you and hope you enjoy your tour as much as most of us who have served there already enjoyed ours. If you'd like some logistical advice on getting into Iraq, check the website I maintained while I was in Baghdad: www.baghdadanne.com. I never made it to Al-Hillah, but it will give you some flavor of life in a hootch!

Best regards!

Florida, USA
November 24, 2007

Conrad in Florida writes:

You've volunteered because others have volunteered before you have on other assignments. You know then that volunteering is a good thing especially in government work. When you volunteer for work it usually means a harder assignment.

You have to make the plan work by the rules to make it easier on yourself and your fellow workers. Always ask the person in charge. "What do you want me to do?" Everyday/everytime a situation arises communication with your workforce seems to be the easiest way.

November 24, 2007

Ralph in Greece writes:

God Bless you! I was a bit embarrassed by some of the U.S. diplomats who appeared to be whining about going to Iraq. Of course, it's dangerous and not many probably would like to go, but when DUTY CALLS, you stepped up to the plate and made Americans like me proud. I see the U.S. Military folks doing this daily and it's good to know there are State Folks who also take DUTY seriously.

The military receives hazard duty pay in Iraq as well. There is no shame or explanation needed for you to graciously accept these additional benefits. Plus, from what I've read in the media, you will be working with a "Dream-Team" of diplomats assigned to that embassy. One of which is our former US Ambassador in Greece, Mr. Charles Ries.

God speed and good luck in Iraq!

November 26, 2007

Dipnote Blogger John Matel writes:


You will find life here is more "normal" than you think. At least you get used to it fast. The situation changes very quickly. Any description of Iraq six months ago does not reflect reality today, so what it will be like next year is impossible to predict accurately. All I know is that security conditions improved much faster than experts predicted and are much better now than most American back home know. Bad news is front page news; improvements are often just ignored.

The good thing about working in Iraq is that you have the personal chance to help something good happen. It is a chance few people get in life. You are right to view it as an opportunity and not a burden.

November 28, 2007

Moshin in Pakistan writes:

Good for you. I think that if there's a chance of making a difference in Iraq, it'll be dependent on people like you.

Did I mention that I like the picture of you here? I think I took that one ;)

Florida, USA
November 28, 2007

Kathleen in Florida writes:

Brian: Thom and I wish you well on your upcoming trip. We are very proud of your patriotism. It is nice to see you haven't changed at all.

California, USA
November 28, 2007

Kelvin in California writes:

My experience training pre deployment Marines in the Operation Mojave Viper makes me interested in working for the State Department.

I would like to make a direct human contact instead of going to a website. My skills are unique and valuable.

What is the most appropriate route for someone like myself?

Missouri, USA
November 29, 2007

Bill in Missouri writes:

Thank-you for your service to our country.

United Arab Emirates
December 7, 2007

M in U.A.E. writes:

American people are amazing
God Bless America

December 12, 2007

Mina in Kuwait writes:

How can I volunteer in serving secrecy to help and support your government. I'm Egyptian and I live in Kuwait.


Latest Stories