1st Lt. Benjamin Riley, right, a civil affairs officer, meets a villager during a patrol to the Arghandab River, Afghanistan. The Army is looking to bolster its civil affairs ranks. (Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras / Air Forc)
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The Army is looking to bolster its cadre of “warrior diplomats” by adding hundreds of enlisted soldiers and officers. To entice applicants, the service is touting big bonuses, instant promotions, high job satisfaction and assignments all over the world.
Combined, these perks arguably make Civil Affairs the hottest job in the Army today and one that will set you up for a long career in uniform.
Although the active force continues to shed thousands of soldiers, Civil Affairs estimates adding nearly 250 enlisted and 150 officers annually over the next several years.
“We are looking for people who are intelligent, have high physical fitness and endurance, strong character, good interpersonal skills,” said Civil Affairs branch commandant Col. James Wolff. “We’re not an ‘engage from 2,000 meters’ unit, we’re face to face.”
Active-duty Civil Affairs troops are conducting peacetime operations in more than 40 countries. In small, four-person civil affairs teams — made up of a captain and three noncommissioned officers — they work with civilian agencies and organizations in a low-profile way, leveraging soft power to quietly strengthen and stabilize friendly governments, while fending off destabilizing groups.
You may find yourself building cyclone shelters in Bangladesh, teaching civil-military operations in Africa, supporting military field clinics in the Philippines, supporting security operations in Colombia, or assisting the country of Georgia as it builds a Walter Reed-style amputee care program for vets.
For qualified candidates, Civil Affairs’ growth over the last decade equals opportunity. The demand for Civil Affairs NCOs is so high the Army is offering bonuses of more than $70,000 for mid-grade as well as retirement-eligible NCOs. Language proficiency can significantly increase a soldier’s re-enlistment bonus and mean up to $400 per month in language pay.
Growth has fueled high promotion rates, meaning Civil Affairs must continuously replenish the ranks of its NCOs.
“We have one of the highest promotion rates in the Army for our NCOs, and our officers remain above the Army average,” Wolff said.
Civil Affairs has only existed as a branch since 2007, growing from a functional area into a military occupational specialty (38B) and an active-duty regiment with two brigades. The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne) under Army Special Operations Command, and the 85th Civil Affairs Brigade under Army Forces Command each supply five regionally aligned battalions.
While the Reserve component continues to play a pivotal role, the active component’s share of Civil Affairs troops has grown from four percent to 30 percent over the last decade or so. With two wars raging, the high op tempo required Civil Affairs to expand and the active component to absorb more of the mission from the Reserve — which at one point transformed field artillery units into Civil Affairs.
“The Reserve component was hit hard by two wars going at the same time, and ... a lot of reservists went back again and again and again,” Wolff said. “We’re really rebuilding our force structure to meet the demands of the nation.”
More than money and promotion potential, civil affairs leaders say the unique mission is the most compelling reason to join. In civilian clothes and with their weapons holstered, teams can deploy anywhere in the world for four- to eight-month missions. Within 24 hours of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne) sent in five teams from across U.S. Southern Command.
“My medic in the 95th delivered two babies in Haiti, so it’s incredibly rich as far as operational experiences go,” said Capt. John Toll, who supervises civil affairs assessment and selection.
According to Wolff, it has the highest retention rates and one of the lowest officer loss rates of any career field.
“When people get here and do the job, they love it,” he said.
Inside civil affairs
The teams are made up of regional experts with the autonomy to create their own operational plans based on broad strategic guidance from the Defense Department, an ambassador and the Army.
“Nowhere else in the world does an O-4 talk directly to a one-star or two-star, or to an ambassador; neither does an E-7 or a captain,” said Maj. Virgil Dwyer, operations chief for the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion.
For Sgt. 1st Class James Lunn’s team, civil affairs meant assessing the needs of the Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border in Jordan in 2012. As part of a coordinated multinational effort, his team provided the camp with 5,000 tons of gravel. Modest by design, the project was a foot in the door to later establish schools and a relationship with the camp’s food distribution program.
“The effect we’re trying to achieve is to help the Jordan government, to show it’s capable of working with the international community to help the Syrian people,” said Lunn, a team sergeant with Delta Company, 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, 95th Civil Affairs Brigade. “The challenge is finding your niche. Everyone is asking, ‘What can you do?’ and we’re representing U.S. interests.”
Teams can work alongside their special operations brethren, conventional units or partner-nation militaries, providing populationcentric, non-lethal capabilities as part of a “holistic SOF approach,” according to Maj. Patrick Blankenship, executive officer for the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion. A civil affairs team analyzes the roots of instability in a given region or country, identifying civil vulnerabilities a potential enemy could exploit.
Working with a U.S. ambassador-led country team, a team could be working with the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, or the FBI as well as any number of local or international organizations — quietly, more often than not.
Each region varies by political climate, the terms under which the Army operates with the host government and what funding is available.
“A lot of those organizations really don’t want to be seen as working with the [U.S.] military, so there is also a coordination you’ve got to be able to do without tainting how they’re seen, of not being a tool of the U.S. government,” according to Wolff, the Civil Affairs branch commandant.
Soldiers must also be careful not to overshadow the host government, but help it foster a bond with its people.
“To have that balance between assisting someone with their issue and not solve it for them, the teams have to be very candid and very careful,” said Dwyer, of the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion. “We want to do as much as we can and not do it for for them.”
Civil affairs troops, through their ground-level interactions and understanding of local cultures and the people, are able to glean a sense of local dynamics. In the Zaatri refugee camp, for example, they were able to get a sense of whether Syrian refugees planned to return if Syrian president Bashar Assad’s government was overthrown.
“Who better to shed light on that common operating picture than a civil affairs soldier who ate from that market, who buys their groceries from that market, that has friends they deal with in that market or that village all the time,” Dwyer said. “The people in those places are key to our ability to operate and do what we’re able to do. We look for influencers in those communities. If I need to change something, who better to know how to impact it and who I have to talk to.”
Civil affairs troops have increasingly gone to Africa and the Pacific on counter-terror missions. Soldiers have served in West Africa, in hotbeds of insurgent activity and also trained local forces in East Africa, where the al-Shabab militant group has launched terror attacks.
Civil affairs leaders acknowledged that hard power has its limits.
“We realized in SOF as a whole that bad guys are like gremlins; you keep killing them and they keep popping up,” said Brandon Swygert, operations sergeant major for the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion. “How do we affect through relationships, communities surrounding those bad guys and governments surrounding those bad guys so they are non-supportive to insurgents?”
Inside assessment and selection
On April 23, 1st Lt. Josh Jenks and his teammate tentatively entered the mock clinic at Bragg’s “Freedom Village” to engage with the nurse running it, first establishing rapport with her by sitting, laying down their weapons and asking about her needs.
But when Jenks asked whether the nurse was married, it sounded like a misstep. “That’s a really personal question,” the role player said.
This was the fifth day of Civil Affairs’ tough 10-day assessment and selection process. Civil Affairs looks at about 700 candidates each year to compete in the assessment — only about 62 percent make the cut and go on to the yearlong qualification course and foreign language course.
On this particular mission, 15 small teams were to engage “officials and influencers,” assess the village’s needs and devise a plan. The scenario was filled with figurative landmines and pitfalls, and mysteries.
What’s causing the tuberculosis outbreak? Why does the police chief need dozens of guns when he insists there’s no security problem? Who are the gangs menacing the village? Does the American presence help or increase the threat?
“The answers are there; it’s whether they’re able to retain them and come together to form a plan as a team,” said Toll, who supervises assessment and selection.
Observers assess whether candidates get rattled and acquiesce in a meeting. Are they carefully considering who they help and what the ripple effects may be?
“One of the pitfalls is someone asks for a generator, these guys give them a generator: check,” Toll said. “But what does it do if you give them a generator? Are we giving them fuel and spare parts? What happens when we leave in nine months? Are we creating more problems?”
The mission is all about stability, not taking credit, and not necessarily about helping people.
“Uncle Sam doesn’t have friends or enemies, Uncle Sam has interests,” Toll said. “Sometimes we help people, and man, that feels good, but we don’t go places to help kids; we go there because Uncle Sam says there’s a national security requirement.”
The course involves a combination of daunting physical and cognitive challenges, most with little sleep. Outside of the real-world scenarios, candidates are running and rucking. On the fifth day, candidates build an apparatus out of scrap parts that must carry several hundred pounds, an analogue for the complex problems civil affairs troops face with limited resources.
“At some point in the course, the apparatus will fail,” Toll said. “Seeing how they push through that, whether or not they can persevere, is really what we’re looking for.”
As in the field, sometimes there’s no way to “win” a scenario, and candidates overly fixated on a successful meeting may get rattled.
“Sometimes you’re going to go into a meeting and it’s not going to be friendly,” said Maj. Stephen Ward, of Echo Company, 96th Civil Affairs Battalion. “Are you going to plow through and risk burning a relationship? Sometimes the only thing you can do is set a time for the next meeting, and that’s success.”
It's not a 'full-on smash'
Though Civil Affairs is open to all MOSs, operational experience in combat arms or combat support helps. The majority of candidates tend to be infantrymen.
“A lot of guys come over here because they realize you don’t have to pull a trigger to win a war, that sometimes moving at a 45-degree angle instead of a full-on smash is the answer,” Toll said. “If you’re an 11B [infantryman] who goes to his gun every time, you’re not going to make it here.”
Civil Affairs wants well-rounded candidates, so a “physical stud” or a “rocket scientist” might not make it, Wolff said. Adaptability, capability, perseverance, courage, professionalism, charisma and the ability to work on a team are all desired qualities.
“The ones coming over simply for the promotion rates don’t make it past [assessment and selection],” Toll said.
According to Swygert, a former commander of the selection and assessment detachment now with 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion, the process targets whether a soldier is psychologically ready for civil affairs. What decision might a soldier make when his commander is 2,000 miles away?
“I can’t train initiative, I can’t train morality,” Swygert said. “I’ve got to see in their character, when they come into the pipeline, are they able to make the right decisions. If I go to a country and ... compromise myself personally, it might have strategic consequences for the U.S. government.”
Those who can thrive under the pressure and independence will reap the rewards of a long, fulfilling career.
“The development opportunities far outweigh anywhere I’ve ever been in the military,” Dwyer said