Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You can't serve in Iraq if you're on MEDs?

Peter Van Buren is a Foreign Service Officer with 20 years experience under his belt. He is trying to go to Iraq and has gone public with his quest. The following piece from US Foreign Service Officer Denied Iraq Service is reprinted in full via Cryptome. No mainstream media, as far as I know, has covered Mr. Van Buren's case (more sexy to cover diplomats who refused to go):

This is my story. I am a Foreign Service officer trying to actually go to Iraq instead of trying to get out of serving there. Please feel free to contact me at work 703-875-4344 or by email. If you'd like to contact the Department of State about this matter, please call Acting Director General Teddy Taylor at 202-647-9438. I can supply emails with the quotes noted below if you'd like. Peter Van Buren
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The Department still works hard to round up enough volunteers though apparently is ready to cut out willing FSOs because they are afraid they'll get depressed. No kidding.
Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 20 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe in 1995, a Superior Honor Award for assisting an American rape victim in Japan and another award for work in the Tsunami Relief efforts in Thailand. Unlike many of his colleagues, he has worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience includes multiple field exercises and drills, plus civil-military conferences in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii and Sydney, working closely with allies from the UK, Australia and elsewhere. He was selected to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate as "Ambassador" in a week-long field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions and problems. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill and brings that understanding of Congress to Iraq.
Sounds like the kind of guy you'd want in a PRT in Iraq, right?
Van Buren wants to go, and the assignments office in the Department offered him a senior team leader job in Anbar. The problem is that Van Buren suffers from depression, treated with the drugs you see advertised on TV all the time, and the State Department Medical Office says they can't support depressed people in Iraq. Med came to the stunning conclusion in Van Buren's case that "there are strong safety and health concerns for any in Iraq at this time. In addition, living conditions are most austere." Better yet, Med first approved Van Buren for Iraq and then pulled the decision back a week later after the Medical Officer in Baghdad, there for only one week, balked.
Despite the denial, Van Buren remains committed to the job. He is appealing the decision internally at State and has even contacted Senator Webb's office seeking assistance.
"Success in Iraq remains a vital component of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and the PRTs are central to President Obama's Iraq strategy. The State Department continues to need the very best to serve as PRT leaders to ensure that our effort in Iraq remains strong," said the State Department in a recent cable to the field seeking volunteers for Iraq.
Too bad Med did not get the memo.
Below is the composition of the PRTs in Iraq as of last year:
According to the GAO, the United States was leading 28 of 31 PRTs and other coalition countries were leading 3 PRTs in Iraq. As of August 2008, three types of U.S.-led PRTs were operating in Iraq: 11 PRTs at the provincial level of government; 13 ePRTs embedded with U.S. brigade combat teams and operating in local governments in Baghdad, Anbar, Babil, and Diyala provinces; and 4 Provincial Support Teams (PST), which are smaller PRTs that cannot be based in the intended province due to security concerns. PRTs and ePRTs are a joint State and DOD mission, operating under the command of both the Ambassador and the MNF-I Commanding General.
All U.S. PRTs and ePRTs in Iraq are led by the State Department and consist primarily of civilian personnel. The teams, however, rely heavily on U.S. military forces for their security, food, housing, and other support. The Office of Provincial Affairs at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad directs and supports the operations of PRTs and ePRTs, providing political and economic direction to team members. The military commander has authority over the security and movement of ePRTs; many others provide security for PRTs that are colocated with U.S. military units.
Given the drawdown of military presence in Iraq, I’m sure the PRT numbers and composition will probably change with the needs on the ground. But then again, I don't know how much of that would impact this case, since MED is the one saying "no" to this one. Will keep you posted if we learn anything more about this case.
As I understand it -- MED has agreed to "re-review" Mr. Van Buren’s case if the Department were to offer him a Baghdad PRT vice something further afield. The idea probably so MED could "monitor" him if he was in Baghdad. I wonder how much of that is CYA and how much monitoring that really means? Considering the challenges that FSOs and their families are subjected to in missions all over the globe, the constant relocation and reinvention of self every 2-4 years, the fragmentation of one's emotional life as you leave friends and make friends anew and the missing presence of extended families and relations -- I'm surprised that not many more are suffering from depression. One other FSO is also wrestling with MED for exactly the same reason as Mr. Van Buren's. Which begs the questions of -- 1) how often does MED really screen for depression unless it's self reported by the employees and the family members? (Presently, you can simply update your medical records when you relocate to a new place; you won't even need a physician to give you a thorough look see under the hood ...). And 2) If you suffer from depression but do not seek treatment, what's the chance of you ending up in Iraq or Afghanistan or one of the hardship posts in the FS?
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