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Commentary: Honoring the other veterans

Amid the celebration of the annual Memorial Day holiday, we have largely ignored the other veterans.

We rightfully shower praise and respect on those who wore the U.S. uniform and carried weapons into the battlefield in defense of U.S. policies, values, interests and alliances.

But what about those who walked the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq without a gun and without a uniform.

We went out to deliver U.S. foreign aid to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan – to build schools, to train midwives, to build road and bridges. We slept in trailers and schools and mud huts. We lied to our kids and wives back home, saying we were safe, that all was well.

Some of us paid the ultimate price. John Granville was a young employee of the U.S. Agency for International Development who was shot and killed New Year’s day 2008 in Khartoum, Sudan, along with his driver Abdel Rahman Abbas. They were targeted by anti-American Islamist militants. Granville’s ashes were poured into the Indian Ocean from a native sailboat by his colleagues.

Paula Lloyd, 36, a former USAID worker helping U.S. troops understand Afghan society, died in 2009 of burns she got when an Afghan man threw gasoline on her.

On the wall of the USAID lobby in the Reagan Building in Washington is a memorial wall with dozens of such names. Many died in Vietnam when USAID had more than 15,000 staff in the field, trying to win hearts and minds by helping in agriculture, irrigation, health and education.

U.S. aid workers have built radio stations in troubled areas of Africa to bring a breath of honest reporting in the place of radios run by rabid militias, and ethnic zealots or dictators.

I rode with two other USAID employees across northern Afghanistan’s Badakshan Province in a solitary, unarmored and unarmed jeep in 2006 to open a new road and paved market square in the city of Baharak. A USAID-built girls school perched on a hill overlooking the town.

These are places where for six months there is no problem and one can walk in the markets and share tea and bread with local people. But suddenly an attack comes out of nowhere. The bad guys have realized they have ignored the peaceful regions and need to try and undercut the aid programs.

In Kabul, I walked with a journalism trainer to the main intercity taxi stand to send off a manila envelope with recorded radio broadcasts. These shows, prepared by Afghans trained in honest and accountable objective journalism, would be delivered to station managers in Herat and other distant cities for broadcast on local stations set up by USAID. The taxis meant aid staff could avoid the dangerous road trip.

In Pakistan, after an earthquake killed 75,000 in 2005, USAID workers flew each day up from Islamabad’s airport inside huge Chinook helicopters that would spend the day hauling nets filled with sacks of flour to villages cut off from supplies.

Up there in the mountains I saw USAID staff handing out building kits with corrugated metal roofing sheets, tin cook stoves, tools and other shelter materials. We stood beside hostile Islamist groups trying to compete with us in handing out food and offering medical help.

You could die a hundred different ways while working on these missions. Rockets smashed into my hotel one morning in Baghdad. Rockets fell at random inside our compound every few days. One helicopter I took from Baghdad to Ramadi followed the same route as a Blackhawk chopper that crashed the night before, killing all 14 on board.

We rode in the back of anonymous Iraqi taxis with curtains drawn as if for purdah – separating women from the public. We parked our car in an alley near the house rented by an aid group in Hilla, Iraq, after suspicious cars had driven by the house.

Journalists too are veterans of these wars and have put themselves in harm’s way so that Americans can read in the newspaper or see on TV honest, objective accounting of how our nation’s military is waging the war.

Yet on Memorial Day there is no mention of the risks faced by aid workers and journalists, the months and years separated from families and risking their lives to carry out U.S. foreign and humanitarian policies.

This is not a big surprise. Soldiers are taught to break things and kill people. Aid workers are trained to build things and save lives. At first they seem like opposites. But they are really complementary.

InterAction, a group of more than 150 U.S. aid groups supplying humanitarian relief and development assistance, once made a video to help aid workers and soldiers understand each other better. In it, a senior military officer says he learned that aid workers are like soldiers. The military goes far from home to sleep on the ground and protect those who cannot defend themselves. Aid workers also leave their families behind to live in dangerous places and serve America by delivering medicine, food, water, seeds and other life-saving aid.

There is no special day set aside to honor the aid workers and journalists who risk their lives to provide the blessings of America to those who are suffering. Maybe we should find a way to make mention of these civilian veterans on Memorial Day along with the America’s military veterans.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.