In August of this year, after a long hot summer and nearly one and a half years into a global pandemic, I felt myself – like so many Americans – becoming restless and yearning for a sense of normalcy. As an Army Officer on loan to the U.S. Department of State and a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I was feeling underestimated and out of place. I wanted to get back to dirty boots and Soldiering. I missed the Army.
Shortly thereafter, I received a call asking if I’d be interested in serving as a military advisor on a new Task Force in support of Operation Allies Welcome. I knew immediately that I wanted to volunteer but had no way of knowing just how deeply that choice would affect me, or what I would learn about my civilian colleagues at State in the process.
I was used to seeing military officers and veterans being comfortable with the uncomfortable. We had grown accustomed to it over the years in training and in war.Benjamin W. StegmannLieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army
My time on the Task Force began with night shifts. As the work progressed and the situation in Afghanistan evolved, I remember thinking that I had never encountered a more wicked problem set. The multiple dilemmas we faced seemed almost unreal. As I observed my State colleagues working under enormous pressure, I realized that the experience we were now grappling with could never really be simulated in any training or learned from a class or book.
Together, my colleagues and I dove into the Task Force, wrestling with the stress and fatigue that comes with working in a rapidly changing environment. Add to it a dizzying alphabet soup of military abbreviations and briefing products, long and fluctuating work hours, and fielding literally thousands of calls and emails from desperate people in a dire situation and you get a recipe for learning some very tough lessons. These were hard lessons I myself had learned in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I suddenly felt as though military experience and all the lessons that come with that had prepared me for this very moment at State.
In the six weeks I worked on the Task Force, I would witness these men and women overcome these challenges and ultimately become a success story of State and Defense interoperability in the process. I was used to seeing military officers and veterans being comfortable with the uncomfortable. We had grown accustomed to it over the years in training and in war. Now, here was an instance where I could also see the civil servants around me stepping up to the plate and embracing their new battle rhythm. They were good and getting better by the day.
Yet it wasn’t only the junior colleagues who I observed during this time. It was the first time I had really been exposed to seasoned veterans of the Foreign Service. The dedication to duty and the knowledge of these individuals were most certainly a source of inspiration and motivation for me during my time on the task force. I was also struck one night when I was writing a memo to get a group of consular officers past a checkpoint. At a time when everyone and everything was coming out of Afghanistan, they were trying to get in. To perform a vital task. This was the embodiment of selfless service and personal courage.
One night, long after hours on the Seventh Floor, I spoke with a young colleague who was overcome by the events that had unfolded that day. I gave this person a hug and told them it was okay to feel how they were feeling. In that moment, I felt a sense of déjà vu. It had been 20 years and thousands of miles away, but a similar moment had played out in Afghanistan, and I couldn’t help but reflect on all that had transpired. These thoughts and many more swirled through my head that night as I put Roosevelt Island and the Potomac out my right door and accelerated up the dark George Washington Parkway. This drive and the water below somehow reminded me of flying along the Helmand River years before in Afghanistan. It had been a long time since then, but being part of Operation Allies Welcome felt like I was somehow finishing up what I had begun almost 20 years ago as a young lieutenant in Afghanistan.
As we draw closer to Veterans Day this year, I offer up a humble call to action: not only a call to thank a veteran or buy a poppy, but to go to a parade, veteran’s hospital, or even to spend time with a veteran you know. Ask them questions and share your story with them as they share theirs with you. Finally, and in the midst of it all, I call for grace, patience, and understanding among all the members of our country’s most esteemed institutions, the Departments of Defense and State.
About the Author: Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin W. Stegmann is a U.S. Army Officer currently serving in the U.S. Department of State as a Military Advisor working in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs on the Germany Desk. His previous postings include Afghanistan, Iraq, and Germany.