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Armed With People Skills

There's nothing romantic about a good staffing plan for the Afghan National Army. But it's necessary.

January 31, 2005
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W hen I talk to Dean Perez, he only has a few days of leave left. Soon he’ll say goodbye to his wife, Andrea, and their two boys, Brian, 13, and Brett, 10, and hop a series of planes that will take him back to his posting outside Kabul. Perez, 44, is a major in the Oregon Army National Guard, and at this point in our interview, he’s trying to explain to me why he sounds so stoked about Afghanistan.

    It’s not that he likes the country. It’s barren and riddled with land mines. It could hardly be more different from clean, green and peaceful Astoria, Oregon, which Perez calls home, and where he has worked as human resources director for Clatsop County for the past five years.

    In that position, he’s the consummate human resources generalist, drafting policies and procedure and, at times, wrangling with the county’s unions over labor contracts. He also recruits for county jobs, selling the lure of life in a small town where crime is low, the schools are good and you can afford to buy a house and make a home.

    For Perez, home right now is Camp Blackhorse, a fire base 25 miles outside Kabul. Since August, he’s been working as a member of a multinational embedded training team--an ETT, in military parlance--made up of U.S. and Romanian military personnel. Their job is training the Afghan National Army..

    Unlike some army-building operations, where the trainers and trainees meet only for drills and rifle practice, Perez and the ETT are mentors, brothers and fathers to the troops.

    "We eat, sleep and suffer right along with these guys," he says. The "guys" range from callow 17-year-olds to war-tested former mujahadeen who fought the Russians through the 1980s and battled the Taliban with the Northern Alliance. Some of them might even have been Taliban themselves, but have since sworn allegiance to President Hamid Karzai .

    In addition to his role as a military trainer, Perez is also using his civilian skills.

    "There’s nothing romantic about a good staffing plan or policies and procedures for the Afghan National Army," he says. But that’s what’s needed.

    Take the tribute problem. He makes sure soldiers know that they do not have to kick back part of their salary to their superior officers. Those superior officers also learn why it’s not OK to squeeze subordinates for cash.

    Then there’s payroll. Cash is king in Afghanistan, and when it’s payday, Perez has been known to stuff a knapsack with the $150,000 and head out to disburse it to troops in the fields. A couple of armed guards go along, of course.

    Perez says he’s proudest of what he’s done to ensure the respectful return home of Afghan soldiers who have been killed in the line of duty.

    It was a slow process, mired in bureaucracy. In an Islamic country where faith and tradition require a quick burial, the delays were painful and insulting to the soldiers’ families. Perez says he pushed hard to make things change.

    Now the dead go home quickly, arriving in flag-draped coffins with honor guards. Families receive a stipend for the burial. A procedure is in place, and that pleases Perez. "It’s the HR in me," he says.

    As Perez teaches, he also learns lessons in Afghanistan. Take patience, for instance.

    Perez says he’s very much the American hard-charger, cutting to the chase and eager to get the job done. His Afghan counterparts have a different approach, particularly when it comes to eliciting the cooperation of tribal leaders.

    "Relationships in Afghanistan are everything," Perez says. "We learned that we need to be genuine and sincere and sit down and drink tea with them, talk to them, respect their culture. We might have to go back two, three or four times before they’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’ll help.’ "

    Back in Clatsop County, he says, negotiations can be, well, tough. "We’ll sit down with the unions and hammer it out, but we don’t sit down and drink tea," he says. "We might get the contract signed, but there are damaged relationships in the process."

    When he gets home, he says, he might just try some things the Afghan way. First, some tea. Then, some talk. And maybe, as a result, a little less hammering.

Workforce Management, January 2005, p. 8 -- Subscribe Now!

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