Operation Tribute to Freedom

Faces From the Front for February 14, 2011 - 1st Lt. Stephen Hunnewell

First Lieutenant Stephen Hunnewell

Current Unit: 404th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne)
Current Position: Civil Affairs Team Leader
Component: Reserve
Current Location: Afghanistan
Hometown: Woburn, Mass.
Years of Service: 6

Much of the vigorous work that American forces are performing in Afghanistan requires an endless amount of patience, as well as a thorough commitment to the work that needs to be done. No group perhaps exemplifies this enduring sentiment more so than the Army’s Civil Affairs Team (CAT), who works daily with the people of Afghanistan in their efforts to establish a stable government and a quality way of life. For 1st Lt. Stephen Hunnewell, his role as a team leader for the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion has led to a firsthand knowledge of the frustrations, toils, and dangers in this process.

As part of the Civil Affairs Team, 1st Lt. Hunnewell and his squadron travel to various regions in order to encourage a working relationship between Afghan people and their district level leadership. Leadership in these areas generally includes local community development counsels (CDCs) and district development assemblies (DDAs). By collaborating with these organizations, the CAT helps local governments connect with their people.

“Through a constant presence in communities, the team would gather an understanding of the needs of a particular community. The team would then attend the CDC/DDA meetings and ascertain whether or not the needs of the community were truly being addressed,” explained Hunnewell. “We are able to interact with the local population, Afghan National Security Forces, and GIRoA officials on a daily basis.”

The newly formed Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) has been met largely with uncertainty by the Afghani people, who have grown accustomed to the violence and tyranny of Taliban rule. The CAT works to assist the GIRoA in overcoming this skepticism so that GIRoA can establish a sense of trust and dependability with their people.

However, before this dialogue can begin, U.S. forces need to ensure that there is a local governing body in place. When moving to a new area, the team first assesses whether or not the people have assigned government officials. If they have no officials, troops must quickly work with the local community to identify qualified candidates for the positions. In other areas there are officials who are simply not effective.

“Each area brings with it a completely separate set of challenges,” Hunnewell explained.

On top of the logistical and cultural challenges that the CAT faces, there is also the constant threat of insurgent attacks. Hunnewell has spent much of his deployment in the turbulent Pech Valley, a heavy combat area of Afghanistan where U.S. troops are engaged with enemy forces on nearly a daily basis.

“The area is one of the most dangerous military postings. The team’s efforts to engage the local populace were constantly hindered by Taliban and Al-Qaeda efforts. The Civil Affairs Team was engaged in firefights on a regular basis either upon completion of meetings with village elders or en-route to meetings with district leadership and/or village elders,” said Hunnewell.

Amidst the challenges of accomplishing this objective is the constant threat of Insurgent attacks, public skepticism, and ethnic tension. However, Hunnewell is able to block out the continuous pressures and violence and maintain an optimistic and peaceful mindset; something he attributes to his beliefs in the practices of Buddhism.

“Developing a practice has helped me to cope with some of the stressors and post-traumatic stressors which have been a result of prolonged combat,” explained Hunnewell.

As a practicing Buddhist, Hunnewell is versed in key principles of peace, and approaches every situation with an open mind. These ideologies have lent themselves well to his responsibilities in Afghanistan, where it is critical that his team is able to cast aside preconceived notions to accomplish their mission.

“My particular job is one of understanding the ‘human terrain’ and figuring out how to best connect with the local populace,” he explained. “In Afghanistan, we need to enter the situation with a ‘beginners mind’ in order to see the world as Afghans do.”

Hunnewell’s calm and tactful approach proved useful during his time stationed in the Pech Valley. Here, the Afghans had a fully elected group of officials; however, they operated in an area in which they were not involved with their people. The CAT faced the challenge of connecting an established local government to their largely indifferent populace in the midst of a heavy insurgent presence. In this instance, Hunnewell and his team created a counterinsurgency plan.

“I constructed a counterinsurgency plan which brought the population closer to the government, while driving a wedge between the population and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda,” Hunnewell said. “The plan and effort was known as Operation Crop Diversification.”

People in the Pech Valley are predominantly farmers, and their economy is based chiefly on the harvesting of corn. Unfortunately for both the people of the Pech and U.S. forces, insurgents often use these corn fields for ambush attacks. The aim of Operation Crop Diversification was to give farmers the opportunity to grow a broader variety of crops by providing them with agricultural resources through their CDC. In doing this U.S. forces were able to stimulate the local economy, while instilling a sense of trust in the community’s governing body, as well as decrease the number of attacks on civilians.

Another aspect of the work that Hunnewell and his team do is the assessment of community structures. In an area as unstable as the Pech Valley, there are many members of the community who join or aid insurgency forces. It is critical for U.S. forces to understand the citizens of the area they are working in, in order to dissuade Taliban support.

“People join an insurgency for many reasons—money, ideology, lack of employment, etc… It is very important for both the Afghan National Security Forces and Coalition Forces to understand the motivations of the insurgent in the area. We then use this information to target causes of instability such as unemployment,” said Hunnewell.

In spite of the countless obstacles and frustrations that Hunnewell must endure in his day-to-day duties, he knows that patience and determination are vital to his success.

“With enough perseverance there is hope,” he said.

Hunnewell’s team was recently re-located to the Zadran Arc area, a region roughly the size of Rhode Island. They continue to foster relationships betwe en the Afghan people and their local leadership with the goal of creating a functional and dependable government.

Hunnewell is set to return in March of 2011. He plans to return to his home in Lowell, Mass., and hopes to be re-admitted to nursing school and to resume his training for ultra-marathons. Awaiting his arrival is his wife and newborn son.

Telling the Army Story: Community Relations

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