Forward-Deployed Civilians Play Vital Role in Terror War
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 2004 The death of a Department of the Air Force civilian in Iraq Aug. 8 brings attention to some of the unsung heroes of the war effort: thousands of Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy civilian employees who have voluntarily put themselves in harm's way to support the war on terror.
Special Agent Rick Ulbright, a 49-year-old polygraph examiner with the 33rd Field Investigative Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., died at Kirkuk Air Base, Iraq, from wounds received during a mortar attack.
Ulbright had been in Iraq for more than two months, providing polygraph support for counterintelligence and counterterrorism efforts, according to Bryan Horaist, chief of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations' Regional Office at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. He was scheduled to return home in September.
Like the thousands of other Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps civilian employees forward deployed in Southwest Asia, Ulbright "was an integral part of the effort," said Horaist, a personal friend who attended Ulbright's Aug. 13 memorial service in the Washington area. "He wanted to be there," said Horaist.
Ulbright was among about 1,400 Department of Defense civilians who have volunteered for duty in Iraq, according to Lt. Col. David Farlow, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Baghdad. Most wear desert camouflage uniforms, just like their military counterparts, with "DoD Civilian" tags on their chests, alongside their names.
Department of Army civilians have the biggest on-the-ground presence, with 2,189 deployed to the Central Command theater, according to Maj. Shawn Jirik from Headquarters, Department of the Army Public Affairs. Another 4,411 Army contractors are also deployed.
Among the Army civilians in Southwest Asia are more than 250 Army Corps of Engineers employees, working across Iraq to rebuild the country's infrastructure, according to Mitch Frazier, deputy chief of public affairs for the Corps of Engineers' Gulf Region Division in Baghdad and a Department of Army civilian.
The Air Force reports 35 employees in its workforce forward deployed to the CENTCOM area, according to Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens. In addition to criminal investigation support, they are providing equipment, air traffic control, information technology, finance and intelligence support.
Marine Corps officials said five Marine civilian employees are deployed to Southwest Asia. No numbers were available for Navy civilian employees.
Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Ogden, who supervises 12 Army Corps of Engineers civilians in Iraq, said he's "very impressed" by the commitment he's witnessed among the volunteers, all serving 120-day deployments. "They want to be here and they want to make a contribution," said Ogden, who heads the Restore Iraqi Electricity Directorate. "They've jumped right in, hit the ground running and show no hesitation about going outside the international zone. They know they have a job to do and they go out there and do it."
Robert Dennis, a Corps of Engineer employee from Clarkesville, Va., who has been in Iraq since May, said he volunteered for the duty so he could play a critical role in the war on terror. "When (the terrorists) attacked New York, they attacked all of us," he said. "For me, I knew it was time to come forward and do what I could."
Sharon Walker, an Army civilian for the Military District of Washington serving a six-month tour at the Coalition Press Information Center in Baghdad, agreed that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, "definitely had an effect on me and my decision to volunteer in Iraq." She said thinking about the terror and pain caused by the terrorist attacks made her more resolved than ever to do whatever she could to support the troops. "This volunteer opportunity came up, and it was the natural next step for me," she said.
Beth Hilliard, a civilian employee from the Corps of Engineers' Savannah District Office, said she volunteered to serve four months in Iraq simply because "it was the right thing to do, something that was going to help the Iraqi people."
Hilliard shrugged off the dangers involved in the deployment. "Different incidents go on here, but the mission takes priority," she said.
Walker said the preparation she received before deploying, both at Fort Myer, Va., and Fort Bliss, Texas, has proved invaluable in Iraq, particularly training in nuclear-biological-chemical protection, common skills and day-to- day soldier skills, such as how to pack a rucksack.
The duty has some rough aspects that many of her civilian counterparts never encounter, Walker acknowledged. She used the example of the time her plane made a "battle landing" into Baghdad International Airport.
"I get some adrenaline going sometimes when mortars hit near us, but that helps me get up off my chair," she said. "Talking to people helps me cope. Our interaction always improves my understanding and attitude."
But after several weeks in Iraq, Walker said, she believes she's making a meaningful contribution to the war on terror. "I'm supposed to be here doing this work," she said convincingly.
With "just 16 days and a wakeup call" left on his 120-day deployment, Dennis said he's found tremendous satisfaction in the work he and his fellow Corps of Engineers coworkers are doing, restoring electricity to Iraq. "We're turning the lights back on and making a huge difference in people's lives," he said.
"We're doing a lot of good work," agreed Hilliard. "We're really putting megawatts on the (power) grid and helping these folks."
Her advice to other civilians within Department of Defense considering service in Southwest Asia? "The job is very challenging and the work is fast-paced, but it's very rewarding," she said. "Overall, I'm glad I volunteered. And the longer I'm here, the more I feel that way."