WASHINGTON, May 6, 2015 - Often working behind the scenes in support of their military teammates, civilian employees help provide a stable foundation at installations worldwide, shouldering in-garrison missions to enable military members to deploy in support of overseas contingencies.
In recent years, however, civilian interest and participation in deployed service has significantly increased, and now around 400 civilians a year join their military teammates in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations around the world.
"Civilian deployment is not for everyone," said Tom Kelly, program manager of the Air Force Civilian Expeditionary Workforce, or CEW. "The hours are long at often potentially dangerous and austere locations for up to 12 months, all without loved ones nearby to offer comfort. But, for the right person, deployment is an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with uniformed members in a fight that transcends personal comfort or safety. It is an opportunity to learn more about national defense from the rubber-meets-the-road perspective and to give back to your country."
Of the civilians who are currently deployed, roughly 62 percent are serving one-year deployments in support of U.S. Central Command CEW requirements, Kelly said.
"We are currently filling CENTCOM deployments at a rate of 2-to-1 compared to the other services combined," he said. "Deployments can be as short as 30 days or as long as two years with approved extensions, but the average is probably around six months when you combine Air Force deployments with CEW deployments."
Those who volunteer generally have a deep desire to serve their nation, and an intrinsic desire to serve is a must for these opportunities.
Troy Welsh, an Air Force Materiel Command civil engineer employee, spent a year at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, maintaining heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems that weren't managed by the contractor.
The retired noncommissioned officer deployed twice while on active duty and wanted to experience it from the civilian perspective. He said he not only came away with greater experience in his field, but some intangible rewards as well.
"I really enjoyed getting the chance to meet and work with all the different people from all the countries that support our common cause over there," Welsh said. "I still have contact with a few of the Polish friends I made -- it was an experience I will never forget."
Afghanistan can seem like a world away, and a year could feel like a very long time, but Welsh said he wouldn't change a thing.
"Believe me, it goes quicker than you would think," he said. "I would do it again in a heartbeat."
According to Kelly, most CEW deployments are for requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Routinely, there are around 500 rotating requirements per year for positions that range from intelligence to human resources. The most common deployment opportunities are for engineers, trades, logistics, finance, contracting and safety.
In addition to meeting a variety of people from other nations who are all committed to a common cause, civilian deployers have the unique opportunity to work in a joint environment and get experience in what it's like to serve with members from other military branches, Kelly said.
Dangers are inherent in deployment zones, so why does the Air Force deploy civilians?
"We have more requirements than military members can fill, and we have some requirements for skill sets that the military doesn't have," Kelly said, "so civilian support is critical to mission accomplishment."
That is a view held at every level of national defense, with Defense Department leaders calling an agile civilian workforce with expeditionary capabilities "a critical component in the fight against terrorism."
Because civilian deployers are so critical, DoD policy allows organizations with individuals who serve in these positions to augment their staff to mitigate the impact on loss of volunteers during their period of service in Afghanistan.
A better question might be, with all the danger inherent in the deployment zones, why do civilians volunteer to deploy?
"They deploy because they want to be part of the reason we are the Air Force, they want to experience how we deploy and support our national security objectives and to experience what our military (members) go through every day," said Kelly. "Civilian Airmen are part of the defense team and they want to serve the public in this critical, amazing way."
Tarrus Baker, a workforce development instructor at the Air Force Personnel Center, agrees.
Baker volunteered for a 12-month deployment to Camp Eggers, Kabul, and was assigned to the human resources development team with the Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan. He worked with the Afghan National Police to develop and streamline their human resource processes, which had been all paper-based.
Baker and his team helped the Afghan police develop an electronic HR system called Afghan Human Resources Information Management System, and he travelled throughout the various Afghanistan provinces to inspect Afghan National Police facilities to determine what resources were required to properly implement the new system.
"It was a great experience," Baker said. "We got to know a lot of Afghan National Police leadership. After meeting a lot of the people, you begin to realize the majority just want to be part of the world community, as well as a successful self-sustaining country."
While Baker recommends the experience to any interested civilians, he advises they find out all they can about CEW opportunities so they can make an informed decision.
"Some positions have certain requirements, such as leaving the security of the compound from time to time to work with their Afghan counterparts," Baker said. "Some people were not aware of the requirement until they arrived. It's a wonderful opportunity to do something truly meaningful, but just make sure you understand what you are signing up for."
Yearlong deployments include options for three periods of rest and recuperation, so deployed civilians can take leave to see family and friends and relax away from the deployment zone. R&R can be taken as soon as 60 days after arrival and no later than 60 days from the end of a deployment, Kelly explained.
Civilian employees interested in deployment opportunities can learn more at the DoD CEW webpage at: http://www.cpms.osd.mil/expeditionary/
(Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Command Information contributed to this report.)