Special Operations Civil Affairs NCOs help change hearts and minds
February 22, 2012
Civil affairs teams harness cultural, religious and regional intelligence to provide combatant commanders with a force multiplier that helps Soldiers across the battlefield.
Master Sgt. Jesse Miramontes, an 11B infantryman who joined civil affairs as a team sergeant, said that civil affairs teams provide insight and input well above most of their pay grades and that civil affairs NCOs must be highly competent, intelligent and able to handle missions with maturity and integrity as they operate in smaller team units.
Being on a smaller team enabled him to have more responsibility and freedom. As part of his job, he has talked with ambassadors, chiefs and village elders, he said.
"The difference in our NCOs compared with some other NCOs in the Army is that our NCOs are on the same level as the officers they work with," Miramontes said. "They're thrown more responsibility; they're able to do things that other NCOs aren't. On a four-man team, they have
one officer and three NCOs. At any time, those individuals can switch and do different jobs. Not only the officer would brief the ambassador, but a staff sergeant -- a civil affairs NCO -- could also brief the ambassador."
Each civil affairs team is made up of a captain; a team sergeant; a team NCO, who is usually the team engineer; and the team medic. Though each has their own specialties, the members of the team are able to fill each other's roles, if necessary.
Teams within the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne) are rapidly deployable; advise the combatant commanders or ambassadors on regional, cultural and local issues; and act as liaisons to nongovernmental agencies, information operations and U.S. government agencies. Sgt. Michael Pate, a medic with C Company, 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion, 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, said teams from the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, to which five of the Army's active-duty civil affairs battalions belong, collect and analyze information from locals based on their extensive knowledge of the region and its religions, traditions and customs.
"All civil affairs Soldiers, NCOs and officers, are language trained, culturally trained and regionally aligned," Pate said. "So when they deploy to a country, they're able to provide insight into the religion, into the culture and into the way a certain country or certain people live their life day-to-day. It can have a huge effect on the way that the combatant commander plays out his ground force, like whether or not to do certain things at certain times of the day based on what's going on with [residents'] day-to-day lives."
First Sgt. Gheorghe Iftime, a medic who switched to civil affairs in 2004, said civil affairs Soldiers are exceptionally adaptable, reliable and competent.
"In civil affairs, everyone has to handle the radio like a [communications] guy," Iftime said. "If the team gets split and two guys have to go and your commo guy can't go, then everyone on the team has to be proficient. Everyone on the team has to know how to be an [emergency medical technician] at a basic level and do emergency medical procedures to save lives. Everybody is trained."
First Sgt. Daniel Anderson, the first sergeant of A Company, 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, said civil affairs teams offer a unique mission set and capabilities.
"The team sergeant has been the medic or the engineer before," Anderson said. "The officers run the gamut from (military intelligence) to engineers -- all of that plays a pivotal role to what we bring to the table."
Each member of the team needs to be multifunctional and able to perform on an individual basis, Anderson said.
"We do routine things, routinely well," Anderson said. "There's no room to slack off. If I have to send a team to Country X for six to nine months at a time, they have to be mature. They have to be technically and tactically proficient, not only in basic Army skills, but in their specific job on the team, whether that's the medic sergeant, engineer sergeant or team sergeant."
Civil affairs Soldiers deploy to places including Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Philippines.
Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Miller, a medic who joined civil affairs in 2003, said it's important for civil affairs NCOs to constantly learn, train and adapt to changing environments, because they never know what locale they will find themselves in next.
"Every mission I've done has been different; nothing is ever the same," Miller said. "You can take what you've learned in other missions and deployments, but the people you deal with and the places you go are always different. You have to be able to adjust."
Civil affairs missions are separated into two groups: civil military support element missions and tactical coalition joint special operations task force missions. Civil military support element teams work directly with the U.S. ambassador and the host nation's military to help establish legitimacy for the host government. About 37 percent of the civil affairs missions are this type.
"In some cases, you're working directly for the embassy or the military group or partner nation,"
Miller said. "It's different than working with Afghanistan, where you're working directly for your command. Here, you're working for your ambassador, so things are a little more touchy. You don't want to do anything to get the ambassador against you; he can take you out of the country at any time."
Civil affairs teams also work with the military, police and government officials in the host country to provide local people with the resources they need.
"We engage the local police to put the country's face ahead of us, so that the locals know that their military and police help provide security and provide help needed," Miller said.
The majority of civil affairs teams' missions are passed off from one civil affairs team to another; the deployment for civil affairs teams typically lasts six to nine months.
"Most of the time when we go in, we're replacing [another] civil affairs team," Miramontes said.
Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Anderson, an operations NCO with C Company, 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, which works in U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility, said he has deployed on civil affairs missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar and Yemen.
"In one day, we can be dealing with the U.S. ambassador [or other State Department officials], and within that same day, we could be working with host nation military privates or general civilians within the country," Anderson said.
"We have the flexibility to deal with very high-ups within our own government and also the general populace within the streets," he said. "That's what makes active-duty civil affairs unique, because civil affairs operators have the maturity and the ability to operate at those levels, understand their culture, their way of life, their religion -- essentially blend in, build rapport and establish relationships with them."
Working with combatant commanders
The majority of the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade missions involve working directly with other U.S. Army Special Operations Command forces or reporting to a combatant commander.
"Essentially we report into country and report to the headquarters unit," Anderson said. "We help legitimize the U.S. presence there and interact with the Department of State and the U.S. military. We advise the commander on anything, including civilians on the battlefield or civilians within his operational environment."
The missions vary greatly, even day to day.
"One day you could be dealing with riots in the streets," Pate said. "Another day, you could be walking through the markets and getting food to eat for the night. It could be calm and peaceful."
Overall, the civil affairs mission is to help restore the population's trust in their own government so that civilians don't resort to extremism or violence to solve their problems.
"Our mission is accomplished when, regardless of what problem they have, we've legitimized their government," Iftime said. "In 10 years or five years, we'll come back home, but their government will still function there."
Facilitating a clinic
A common mission is to provide medical outreach to the local populace.
"A civil affairs team will put together a team and go there for a day or two," Iftime said. "A lot of times, the locals will open up their houses, set up a clinic there and start treating major and minor problems. One of the villages that I was in, they started to complain about gastrointestinal problems. We figured out that they didn't wash their hands. So we developed a little class to convince them that washing their hands will help [combat the disease]."
Though a civil affairs team will have medical, dental and veterinary clinics, the team's real mission is to identify what is causing those problems in the first place, Iftime said.
"Part of our job is to analyze and figure out what some of these root problems are and to send that information up to the commander so he can work with his counterpart to organize and put these things together like a [medical clinic]. That's where we really make a difference."
Medics are critical to the team, as they bring essential knowledge and capabilities to treat disease.
"Medics give the CA team a lot of credibility and buy-in," Daniel Anderson said. "They mesh in with medics from [a special operations team] or the [Navy] SEAL teams; chances are they've probably gone to school together. And it buys in a lot of credibility whether it's a [Medical Command] mission or whether it's a clinical assessment," that determines what a clinic
Training for civil affairs
The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade has a language lab at Fort Bragg that allows Soldiers to brush up on language and cultural skills prior to deploying.
In addition, civil affairs Soldiers are required to have the highest language proficiency rating -- fluent in both the written and oral foreign language.
Before a unit deploys to a country, the team does extensive research on what will be needed to accomplish the mission and what tools it will need to have. The team typically trains for three to four months before deployment.
"Any country we go to, we've identified months in advance [what we need]," Anderson said. "So we know what language we need to be proficient in, and we use that language lab. If we know that we're going to Afghanistan, we know we need to be proficient in (Pashto or Dari). We start training months in advance so that we get a good introduction to the language. It establishes credibility with (those civilians). It tells them that we have made an attempt to understand their culture, their language."
The civil affairs mission isn't a glamorous one, Iftime said. It's one in which Soldiers blend in with the population, identify problems and help the local government and its civilians work together to restore lines of communication and identify solutions.
"It's not about us," Iftime said. "It's about their country. It's about their government. If you see that they're making a difference, that's good enough."