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The Little Bighorn had to happen precisely as it did, with the ensuing loss of life, for America to grow into the place that it is today. Think of it this way: for Americans in 1876, the massacre at the Little Bighorn was the very visceral twin of the attack on 9/11.

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Rebuilding a Culture

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“I think we’re getting beyond the point,” says U.S. Army Captain Laura Peters, “when people used to think that all we did in civil affairs was hand out soccer balls to little kids and attend meetings.”

If anybody should have a good grasp of the challenging, front-line services that Army civil affairs units perform, it has to be this 31-year-old native of Northeast Philadelphia and graduate of the red, black and gold of Archbishop Ryan High School, on Academy Road.

“I like to tell people that we specialize in fixing things,” she says, “and that can mean anything from putting a local hospital back in business, to restoring lines of communication that have been broken. You find out pretty fast that the people you deal with need one-on-one contact. They need to trust you before they’ll do anything. And trust is something you have to earn. So, there was a lot of sitting down with local leaders and drinking thick, sweet tea.”

Captain Peters returned from Iraq a few months ago and is currently stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “But I have some of my soldiers in Fort Dix,” she adds, “and I try to get back to Philadelphia as often as I can. My parents are there and so is the rest of my family.”

Her base of operations was the Tikrit area, in northern Iraq, in Samara, birthplace of the Saddam Hussein clan and one of the last, bitter strongholds in Iraq to cooperate with the national government and with American forces. She spent much of her time traveling from town to town and from problem to problem in what she describes as an “up-armored humvee, with a machine-gunner on the top; they have to be brave and really vigilant because whatever happens, they get it first; they’re actually sitting outside the vehicle.”

She spent a good deal of her time in Baghdad, too. “In the Green Zone,” she explained. And what was that like? “They don’t like us to give out too many details,” she says, “for security purposes, but take my word for it, it has to be one of the toughest places on earth to get into and out of. I usually flew in on a Blackhawk helicopter; you can’t imagine what you have to go through just to drive in.”

Most civil affairs units come from the U.S. Army and of that group about 96% are composed of Army Reserve personnel. That’s how Captain Peters began her military career, too, as an Army ROTC (Reserved Officer Training Corps) cadet while she was a student at Florida Institute of Technology, near Melbourne.

“To me, civil affairs is the best job in the Army,” she says, although she said her living conditions could be “crack house austere.”

“You are working on peacetime ops and wartime ops and trying to stabilize and rebuild an economy and a government.”

In the normal course of things, civil affairs units will move into a country, or field of operations, shortly after the combat stops. The units can be composed of a wide array of specialists and professions, from economists and government administrators, to lawyers, bankers, computers programmers, police and firefighters, to farmers and agronomists. “It all depends on what’s needed,” Captain Peters explains.

According to the U. S. Army, “Civil Affairs units help military commanders by working with civil authorities and civilian populations in the commander’s area of operations to lessen the impact of military operations on them during peace, contingency operations and declared war.

“CA units act as a liaison between the civilian inhabitants of a war zone or disaster area and the military, both informing the local commander of the status of the civilian population, as well as effecting assistance to locals by either coordinating military operations with non-government organizations, (NGOs), or by directly distributing aid and supplies.”

Captain Peters divided her time between the operations of the still-emerging provincial government and the needs of the Army combat teams in the area. “That means I was the liaison,” she says, “and their provincial governments are roughly equivalent to our state governments; so I was dealing most of the time with our commanders and their governor’s office. One of our biggest challenges was getting the local Iraqi government to spend the money they had on rebuilding and humanitarian projects. We wanted to see the markets re-open and the kids start playing in the street again.”

It’s hard to overestimate the complexity of her task. Besides balancing the needs of the Army and the population, she was also working concurrently with the U.S. State Department, who were there to evaluate the potential political impact of every mission – as well as assigning Captain Peters to pressing State Department priorities.

Regardless of the country, the only thing that counts is performance. “It goes back to the old line about ‘winning their hearts and minds’, but that’s really what it is. The Iraqi people are constantly judging their own leaders, as well as the Americans, so the more we could help them deliver on things, from electricity to staffing clinics, the better they looked and the smoother everything went.
As she went about her duties in Tikrit, Captain Peters says there was an eerie feeling that the Iraqis “always knew.”

“Many times when you went out,” she says, “you were either letting the people and the local government know that some kind of a combat mission was coming, and you wanted them to know how it was going to affect them, or you were delivering something to them keeping good on a promise. And, I never knew it to fail. They had this unerring sense of what was coming; if it was from a combat commander, the trip would be tougher and there would be more IEDs (improvised explosive devices) along the way. Of course, all of this was supposed to be kept secret. But just let us be out to give them some goodies, or help somebody out and we’d never have a problem. How they knew, I still don’t now. But they did.”

Just before she returned to the United States, Captain Peters was awarded the U.S. State Department’s Superior Honor Award, for conducting exemplary actions and operations, a prestigious award that reflected her service to both State and the Army. “I’d love to continue in some capacity with the State Department,” she says, “but that will be entirely up to the Army.”

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