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The other surge: Civilians step up for Afghan duty

Jun. 27, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Julia Schoenfeld looks at the results after firing an M9 pistol during Civilian Expeditionary Workforce training at Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations at Camp Atterbury, Ind., in February. She was among the first students to graduate.
Julia Schoenfeld looks at the results after firing an M9 pistol during Civilian Expeditionary Workforce training at Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations at Camp Atterbury, Ind., in February. She was among the first students to graduate. (Army)

The Defense Department expects to reach the peak of its civilian staffing surge in Afghanistan within a few months.

Marilee Fitzgerald, the former acting deputy undersecretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy, would not say exactly when the Pentagon expects to have about 1,800 volunteer civilian employees deployed to support military service members. But she said Defense currently has about 1,600 civilians deployed and has recently selected another 90 to deploy within the next 30 days.

Fitzgerald does not expect Defense's civilian presence in Afghanistan to change greatly once it reaches 1,800. She said her office has had no discussions with U.S. Central Command on possible reductions to accompany a military drawdown, which the White House has said will begin next summer.

When complete, the growth in civilian staffing would represent a one-third increase since early December, when President Obama announced a new war strategy that included a 30,000-troop increase and an accompanying civilian surge.

Fitzgerald was named acting director of the Department of Defense Education Activity on June 24, two days after the interview at her Pentagon office.

Defense civilians in Afghanistan help provide acquisition, engineering, construction, financial management, intelligence, law enforcement, language skills, science and medical experience to buttress the military's efforts. Fitzgerald said civilians fill about 40 different jobs in Afghanistan.

"You name it, we probably have it," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said her office uses a résumé database of more than 15,000 pre-screened candidates who are qualified and willing to serve abroad to help fill those positions. More than 10,000 of those résumés are from private-sector people with special skills who are willing to accept temporary appointments to Defense and be deployed.

The Pentagon prefers to select candidates from the more than 4,300 Defense employees who have volunteered to go overseas. Sometimes, however, the Pentagon doesn't have the right person to fill a necessary position and must appoint someone from the private sector. Fitzgerald said the number of private-sector people appointed to one-year terms at Defense is small, though she could not say how many.

"It's usually about having the right skill level," Fitzgerald said. "Some of these are proficiencies in language that a heritage speaker has, or someone who has spent a great deal of time in the culture, that is unmatched with what we have in the civilian work force."

The Pentagon said the database, which it began compiling in 2008, also has 787 résumés from federal employees at other agencies.

Fitzgerald said finding contracting specialists who can operate in a combat environment — and are willing to go — has been challenging. She said the Pentagon so far has not had any shortages in that field, but said officials have to keep encouraging candidates to volunteer.

But Fitzgerald hopes retraining efforts will increase the number of qualified candidates and build a more capable cadre of Pentagon contracting officers. For example, the Pentagon has been focusing on training contracting specialists to make decisions in a matter of hours on the battlefield — instead of the days or weeks they may have back at home to evaluate options — and operate without all the evaluation resources they may be used to back in the office.

"This is why we recruit from within," Fitzgerald said. "If you recruit from outside, the talent goes away."

Fitzgerald said qualified financial management employees also have been hard to find at times.

11-day training

Frank DiGiovanni, the Pentagon's deputy director for readiness and training programs and policy, said that Defense's new training program for deployed civilians helps employees learn how to adapt to a wartime environment.

Early in the 11-day program, participants take a personality test that helps them figure out if they are "pioneers" who can think quickly and come up with new ways to operate in a war environment, or "process" people who can take those new ideas and put them into action.

DiGiovanni said the training program, held at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, then teaches those different types of people how to work together and deal with the curveballs they may encounter when deployed — particularly when dealing with an unfamiliar culture.

"Can you think on your feet?" DiGiovanni said. "If something other than the norm is presented, how will you react?"

The training program "culturally sensitizes" employees and teaches them how to do business with Afghans, he said. DiGiovanni said Defense hires Afghans to role-play scenarios.

"If they make a cultural faux pas, we want them to do it in an environment where we can control it and give them feedback," DiGiovanni said. "In our culture, we want to provide an immediate answer, but in Afghan culture, they're a little slower to get down to business. Our adaptivity training allows you to think before you respond."

Standardized benefits

Fitzgerald also expects Congress to standardize benefits for deployed civilians this year as part of the 2011 Defense authorization bill.

Some lawmakers have criticized other expansions of benefits for federal employees as wasteful in a time of massive government debt. But Fitzgerald emphasized that wartime benefits, such as danger and hardship pay and recuperation leave, are temporary and necessary to support civilians who put themselves in danger by going abroad.

"I've never heard anything but support [from Congress] for what we're doing," Fitzgerald said. "Congress has been very generous for deployed civilians. These [benefits] are viewed as temporary incentives to help induce our civilians to accept jobs in these hardship locations."

Currently, wartime compensation for civilians varies greatly depending on one's department, pay plan and length of deployment. Lawmakers and administration officials say these inequalities are unfair and hurt morale.

The standardized benefits proposal, which was developed by the Pentagon, Office of Personnel Management, and the State and Labor departments, would ensure all deployed civilians receive at least the Washington-area locality pay. Deployed civilians would also be guaranteed a 35 percent danger pay and a 35 percent hardship differential, a $179,700 death gratuity, more leave and traumatic injury compensation similar to what military service members now receive, among other benefits.

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