Civilians in Harm’s Way

July 1, 2005

Last Oct. 14, a civilian Air Force employee—call him Jim; his real name can’t be used—had an hour to kill inside the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad that contains many coalition and Iraqi government buildings.

Jim and some colleagues decided to dine at the Green Zone Cafe, a restaurant popular with Americans in Baghdad. They never saw their lunch order. As the group was waiting to be served, a suicide bomber detonated a backpack bomb in the restaurant, spewing deadly shrapnel throughout its interior. Insurgents had picked that day to strike at the heart of the US presence in Iraq.

The bombing of the cafe, and a similar attack staged at a nearby bazaar, killed four Americans. Jim and two fellow Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents were among the injured.

“I remember sitting there,” Jim says now. “I saw a guy falling back in a chair, and then I went unconscious.”

He woke up in Brooks Army Medical Center, Tex., severely wounded. Jim is recovering now and remains proud of what he and his unit accomplished in Baghdad.

Jim’s experience illustrates a fact of life about Iraq and the Global War on Terror: Uniformed Air Force members aren’t the only ones taking risks. Civilian members of the service find themselves under fire as well.

Past wars had a clear dividing line. The enemy was on one side, the good guys were on the other. It was generally easy to locate safe, rear areas—far away from the action.

“Today things have changed,” said Lt. Col. William Arrington, chief of operations and joint managers branch. “Today there is no line. The global war on terrorism is worldwide, as evidenced by the attack on [9/11].”

Civilian Volunteers

Pentagon officials estimate that roughly 1,500 civilians employed by the military services or the Department of Defense have volunteered for duty in Iraq over the last two years. They have worked alongside their uniformed colleagues, providing a range of support such as air traffic control, information technology, and criminal investigation manpower.

Civilians of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service proffer materiel from home to the troops on today’s front lines. Sarah Latona, an AAFES associate from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, was wounded by shrapnel in an insurgent attack on a convoy in Iraq last October.

She became the first AAFES civilian in the organization’s 109-year history to receive the Defense of Freedom Medal, the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart. The medal was pinned on her by the commander of Mountain Home’s 366th Fighter Wing in a March 24 ceremony.

Air Force Engineering and Technical Services civilians work alongside the military in Iraq, providing maintenance services for a wide range of Air Force aircraft and computer and communications equipment.

A willingness to deploy is part of the job description for AFETS, whose civilians average 25 years of experience. Since Sept. 11, 2001, AFETS has filled more than 275 individual deployments for Air Combat Command.

AFETS personnel constitute 87 percent of ACC’s designated Emergency-Essential civilian employees. When hired, all E-E personnel agree to deploy or otherwise perform temporary duty in a crisis.

Fifteen to 20 Emergency-Essential personnel are away from home, on individual deployments, at any one time, officials said. Other E-E specialties include historians, air traffic controllers, protocol officers, intelligence specialists, and program analysts.

For the Air Force as a whole, the number of civilians deployed to the Southwest Asia theater at any given time is relatively small. This spring, a service official counted 10 in Iraq, five in Afghanistan, and a sprinkling of others in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Kyrgyzstan.

But while small, the contingent has already suffered a fatality.

On Aug. 8, 2004, OSI Special Agent Rick A. Ulbright had just finished conducting a polygraph examination at Kirkuk Air Base in Iraq. He was walking across the grounds to another building when an insurgent-fired rocket landed nearby, killing him.

At 49, Ulbright had joked about being an old man compared to the rest of the deployed OSI agents. The Maryland resident had put off beginning a teaching job at the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute in Ft. Jackson, S.C., to volunteer for a six-month tour in Iraq.

A 21-year Air Force veteran, Ulbright had joined OSI as a civilian in 1998.

“Rick was truly a great American,” said Brig. Gen. Eric Patterson, OSI commander, last year. Ulbright was “an outstanding civilian ‘airman,’ an outstanding special agent.”

Ready To Go

While Air Force civilians are generally not forced to deploy into combat zones, “many of them are raring to go,” said Arrington.

In this regard, Randall J. Redlinger may have been typical. A retired military man, Redlinger was the first senior civilian OSI sent into Iraq. He arrived in May 2003, to pioneer the job of counterintelligence support director for the then-ruling body, the Coalition Provisional Authority.

His task was to establish an operations footprint throughout the country. He was told that “this was a mission that we could not fail at,” he said.

When he arrived, he discovered that the small OSI contingent then in Baghdad had nothing—no electricity, no water, and no clean place to sleep.

Agents’ quarters were in an abandoned phone closet inside a shattered palace.

He helped acquire living accommodations, transportation, and basic tools-of-the-trade for the Baghdad OSI headquarters and four regional offices.

“It was a very daunting task just to get the capability stood up,” he said.

After that, Redlinger oversaw the activity of agents and made sure their information was channeled to the appropriate units. The OSI contingent also provided some senior CPA officials with protective service details.

On several occasions, OSI agents drew insurgent fire while performing their escort duties. “When you get a radio call from your group on the ground saying they are taking fire and evacuating the area, that is a wake-up call,” said Redlinger.

Most OSI personnel were staying at the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad. At approximately 6 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2003, insurgents parked a small trailer near the hotel’s broad side. The trailer was a mobile rocket launcher, and in seconds it launched a fusillade of projectiles into the Al-Rashid facade.

Redlinger remembers that he had just woken up and entered the bathroom when the first explosion occurred. One of his civilian agents had a solid mahogany door blown in on him, but otherwise the OSI troops were uninjured. One Army officer was killed in the attack.

That was the closest scrape with death that Redlinger had during his tour. He left a few weeks later.

“I would be willing to go back tomorrow,” said Redlinger, now deputy executive OSI director. The Iraq mission “was the pinnacle of my career.”

The Defense Department tries to prepare deploying civilians as much like uniformed troops as is possible. Prior to departure, the embarking civilians are offered training in such areas as protection against biological and chemical attack. Some even get remedial instruction in items of basic soldier skills such as how to pack a rucksack.

Living conditions for deployed civilians are the same as those for their military counterparts. In a way, it is kind of a misnomer to make a distinction between civilians and uniformed members of the armed services, since nearly all civilians also wear camouflage dress while deployed. They are simply designated as “civilian” on their name tag.

Civilians generally do not carry weapons. The major exception is for those whose duty requires it, such as OSI agents.

Focused Training

Many of those who have volunteered for deployed duty are themselves former members of the military. As such they have some knowledge of what to expect.

But some civilians in danger are not former military. Kelly—last name withheld on request—is an OSI agent who graduated from college in 2002. After an initial assignment in the Boston area, she put in her name for Iraq duty.

Once she was picked for the assignment, she spent weeks going through a series of preparatory schools. She learned everything from defensive driving techniques to firearms skills to dealing with Arabic translators.

“By the time I finished, I was more than confident,” she said, that she was ready to get on the ground and start working.

When she got to Baghdad in March 2004, she was assigned to a team with five other agents.

Once she arrived, Kelly often carried out interrogations with the help of translators. She found that—as a six-foot-tall young American woman with blond hair and blue eyes—she was someone many Iraqis found unusual. Some were hesitant to talk to her. Some had the opposite reaction.

“It comes down to talking skills,” said Kelly. There “was a surprise factor when they saw me.”

The team’s primary mission was strategic counterintelligence, and the agents spent 70 percent of their time outside the relative safety of the Green Zone, Kelly said.

The first thing that surprised her was the driving on Iraq’s streets. The only rule seemed to be that there were no rules.

“Stop signs, lights, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “The faster you can move, the better.” Before they passed through the Green Zone’s protective barriers, agents printed out the exact route to their destination—and an alternate.

The Iraqis they dealt with ranged from local police detachments to civil guardsmen. The information OSI was after could include the location and timing of planned roadside bombs, the identity of insurgents, or the location of weapons caches.

Kelly said the Iraqis “we spoke with many times were risking their lives in doing so.”

She was proud of her team, which she said was an aggressive one. In general, she was impressed by how everyone—civilians, members of all the armed services, contractors—was working together.

“Everybody was about the one cause,” she said.

The number of deployed civilians remains a small percentage of the US personnel in Southwest Asia. But that does not mean the civilian contribution is unimportant, say Air Force personnel.

Service officials are pushing for legislative changes, such as a combat-zone tax exemption, that would help civilians in combat areas. There is at least one benefit difference: For defense civilians in areas deemed combat zones, danger pay is calculated as a percentage of basic pay. For uniformed members of the military, it is a flat sum.

The hours are long in deployed areas, and overtime pay for civilians can become an issue. Air Force officials say that’s basically something that needs to be worked out between the employee and his or her home unit.

“I don’t see that as a problem right now. It’s just two different systems,” said Arrington. “When you are deployed, you pretty much expect overtime.”

The Air Force would also like to institutionalize the process of civilian deployments. One possible change would be standardizing additional civilian slots in the deploying force packages.

“We are not at that point yet,” said Arrington, describing the procedural changes as “a work in progress.”

Few Face Forced Deployments

Uniformed military personnel have to move out when ordered. For the most part, civilians do not. Defense Department civilian employees are not required to go to Iraq or to deploy anywhere else they might be in harm’s way, unless they have already accepted the possibility of such a deployment as a condition of a job.

“Individuals are not snatched up and sent against their wills,” said James H. Carlock Jr., civilian career program management policy manager in the Air Force’s Personnel Force Management directorate at the Pentagon. According to Carlock, the procedure works like this: The theater commander gives the services his requirements to fight the war, including personnel needs. But joint manning documents do not specifically call for a civilian or a military person to fill any particular job. The Air Force and the other services then have the option of choosing the best person to send into the combat zone. On the civilian side, that is generally a matter of asking for a “show of hands” from willing participants.

Not all deployed civilians are sent to hazardous areas. Though many do go overseas, it is possible to be deployed to another domestic location, to replace a member of the military called up for Iraq or other overseas duty.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Fall of the Warning Stars,” appeared in the April issue.