Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike - Making Choices

November 1, 2008 - I'm usually careful to avoid the use of acronyms, but the following is for fellow employees of the State Department, with perhaps some applicability to other employees of the Federal Government, so I am not going to try to explain the terminology that might be confusing to others.  Because the terms and conditions of service for Iraq are fairly unique, I wanted to describe some of the decisions that you will have to make before or during your service in Iraq, and explain some of the factors that you might want to weigh.

First, of course, is the decision whether or not to serve in Iraq.  The decision is always a personal one and generally involves a mix of altruistic and self-serving motivations.  My wife believes that I made the decision to volunteer for Iraq for purely careerist reasons, to improve my chances for promotion and a good follow-on assignment.  In fact, the decision to do so was more complicated and, being more abstract, probably harder to understand.  First of all, I'm doing this because I can.  My oldest kids are in college or would have no longer been at home, and our youngest, a 13-year-old daughter, could handle the separation better than someone younger.  If I volunteered, perhaps someone else who could less easily afford to do so would not have to.  Second, I wanted the experience.  I've spent a lot of time in transitional democracies, and I wanted to the opportunity to better understand what was happening in Iraq.  As a diplomat, I didn't want to say that I stayed on the sidelines when I had the chance to be involved in an important event.  Third, I wanted to make a contribution.  I didn't agree with the way that we got into Iraq, but now that we are here, I wanted to part of the U.S. Government effort to ensure that the U.S. intervention leaves Iraqis better than they were under Saddam.  Experienced professionals needed to step up.

In my conversations with colleagues here, family considerations have also motivated people to choose an Iraq assignment.  The Iraq Service Recognition Package (ISRP) currently allows a family to stay a fourth year at a foreign posting while the employee serves in Iraq, which, for example, could allow a child to finish high school or a spouse to continue a particularly desirable job.  For those who are Washington-based, an employee's service breaks the Washington assignment so that the clock starts ticking again on the five-year rule, so that, for example, a child with special needs education can stay longer in Washington or an employee can remain close by to aging parents.

In general, however, the decision to serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, or another unaccompanied post becomes harder to make as one's family obligations and ties increase, so that, for example, A-100 classes with younger and often single officers typically have more volunteers for such assignments than are available.   The decision becomes harder for a couple to make and harder still for a couple with children.  Couples with young children probably have the hardest choice.  The ISRP rightly recognizes these difficulties and provides adjustments and offer some compensatory benefits.

Tandem couples should keep in mind, however, that some of the ISRP benefits apply only to families on Separate Maintenance Allowance and does not address the specific issues that confront tandem couples.  The problems do not arise when an employee volunteers to serve in Iraq, curtailing his or her current assignment, and the employee spouse remains at post.  In such a situation, I understand the employee can proceed to Iraq on TDY and then return to his/her original post upon completion of the assignment, so that the tandem couple proceeds to the next assignment together.  The problems would also not arise if the tandem couple is serving in Washington and the employee receives a Washington assignment upon completion of the Iraq assignment, or if the tandem couple serves together in Iraq.  The particular difficulties arise when one employee elects to serve in Iraq and the second employee serves elsewhere, as my wife and I did so that she could care for our 13-year-old daughter.  Tandem couples might consider whether they would also encounter the same complications involved in our assignment, as they consider their choices, and perhaps time a bid on Iraq under more favorable circumstances.

Our complications involved questions of assignment timing and logistics.  We were serving at a service-needs differential post, and we both had extended a third year to receive the SND bonus, but we wanted to transfer at the same time to be on home leave together.  (My wife was also in language training for her first year, so having her just do one year in her job, if we had not extended, struck us as a waste of government resources.)  I received a fairly routine waiver of the need to repay either the SND bonus (which is substantial) or R&R travel since I needed to shorten my tour by one month.  Although I was fairly confident the process would also be straightforward for my wife, and it was, she agonized over the possibility that her waiver request might be refused, particularly since she was likely to overlap with her predecessor.  The second issue involved our transportation and weight allowances.  If I went on a direct transfer to our last post of assignment in Europe and my wife were to receive a Washington assignment, then I would not be authorized to ship my household effects to Washington, so that my wife could not take everything that we had brought to our overseas assignment with her or ship our second car either.  We solved the problem by my being assigned to Washington and TDY to Baghdad.

The problem we had then and face now of coordinating my follow-on assignment with hers is mitigated for other bidders by the possibility of linked assignments.  Although I had expected my wife to seek an assignment in Washington (which is what our daughter dearly wanted), she surprised me by getting an assignment in Frankfurt to be closer to me.  Not being a German speaker, I have practically nil possibilities of securing an assignment in Germany.  We had trusted that the Department would appropriately recognize my Baghdad service so that I could at least secure an assignment in Europe.  This has not proven to be a simple task.  The early Iraq/Afghanistan bidding season, and then the regular season, passed by without my getting a handshake.  Although the regional bureaus might be suffering from "Iraq fatigue," one basic problem is that Iraq and Afghanistan bidders are jostling with each other to land one of a small pool of desirable assignments.  Although I am among the Department's limited number of Italian speakers, for example, I lost out on my bid for an assignment in Rome to a bidder from an Iraq PRT.  I was also very disappointed, however, when I heard that I lost a bid for an assignment in Vienna, for which I was very highly qualified, to a bidder from a non-danger post.  My efforts continue.

My current situation points to another choice - whether to serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, or another unaccompanied post and, if choosing Iraq, whether to serve at the Embassy or at a PRT.  Right now, the benefit of serving at a PRT is the boost in getting a follow-on assignment.  Now that we have moved into the NEC apartments, the difference in the conditions of service is more marked.  Not having served in a PRT or yet visited one, all I can offer is the impression that the conditions among the PRTs differ, sometimes substantially, but getting information about the specific conditions is not easy.  Careful research is important before making one's choice.

I am here on a TDY basis for the reason noted above.  Anyone who wants to receive SMA to house a family outside of Washington, on the other hand, will not be able to be TDY to Iraq and will have to direct transfer instead.  Others will have a choice.  The advantage to being here TDY is that you will receive Washington locality pay of nearly 21% and your danger and hardship differentials will be calculated on that basis, a substantial amount.  The disadvantage is that you will not receive TDY payments while you are in Washington, including during the two weeks of mandatory Iraq orientation training and two days of consultations.  Some colleagues have said the break-even point is seven months.  If you expect to be on TDY in Washington for longer than seven months, for example for language training, then you should have a direct assignment to Iraq and forego the Washington locality pay boost.  In addition, if you are assigned to Washington from an overseas assignment (and then go TDY to Iraq), home leave is allowed but not mandatory, which might give you some additional flexibility on the timing of your transfer.

Another choice is whether to opt for 3 R&Rs or take a 2 R&R/3 RRB package.  With either option, the time on an R&R or RRB outside of Iraq cannot exceed 63 days.  This means that each R&R should be about three weeks in duration (21 days each x 3 = 63 days).  With five trips out of country, each trip should be about 12 days long, which is a short break, especially since some of it is travel time.  If you take three weeks of R&R, then the RRBs can only be a week long.  On the other hand, you can take a break out of country about every two months.  In addition, on an RRB, the traveler is responsible for making and paying for all arrangements after arriving in Amman and on the return until boarding the milair flight back.  Whether R&R or RRB, arranging travel is a big administrative hassle.  For my RRB, I had to: request travel orders, submit a country clearance request, deal directly with the Amman-based travel agency to make flight reservations and pay for them, reserve a hotel room, request a helo seat out and back, reserve a room at Sully Compound on my way out, and arrange for a vehicle to pick me up from Marka airport and to take me to Marka airport from my hotel on the way back.  On R&Rs, the Iraq Support Unit (ISU) will handle a number of the arrangements.  As a result, my impression is that a great majority of people choose 3 R&Rs.

Finally, on your departures, you will also have the choice of going through Amman or Kuwait.  I've never gone through Kuwait, but I understand that a non-stop flight to Dulles is possible through Kuwait with a more convenient timing.  In transiting through Amman, you will have to transit through Europe to get to the U.S. and, with the exception of the Royal Jordanian Air flights, the departures often occur in the early morning hours.  In addition, the milair flight to Kuwait flies five times a week, while the milair flight to Amman is available only on Thursdays and Sundays.  On the other hand, you are not now required to wear your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE, i.e., flak jacket and helmet) on the milair flight to Amman, but you will have to on your way to Kuwait.  (And, by the way, you will have the option to transit several gateway cities in Europe on your arrival in Baghdad.  People say that the connection in Paris is so short that luggage is often lost.  I've already written about my experiences transiting Heathrow.)