This morning at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recognized the efforts of more than 20 USDA employees who served as civilian agricultural experts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The agricultural experts were part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to provide civilian assistance abroad to help promote long-term economic development.
One of those agricultural experts, Ryan Brewster, served for nearly three years in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Here are his recollections:
As I finish more than 30 months working as a USDA agriculture expert in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I thought it would be helpful to look back at the things I have done, remember some of the people I met, and confront again the challenges I faced.
Iraq and Afghanistan are so different. I get asked by so many people which one I liked better. The truth is that they’re just so different that I couldn’t ever choose one over the other. In Iraq, I worked with farmers in Diyala province to help them set up cooperatives to market their poultry, dates, and vegetable. I know that today, those farmers are marketing their products and improving their production and taking advantage of opportunities they didn’t have a few years ago. These people will make Iraq a better place and a more prosperous country.
Afghanistan is much different, with challenges around every corner. But despite the challenges, you quickly realize that agriculture is literally the lifeblood of this nation. In Afghanistan, I found that agriculture has the potential to do so much more than just feed people and provide wages. As we worked with the local Ministry of Agriculture in Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, we watched as a dysfunctional organization became something reliable, something that helped people by delivering needed services. I realized then that agriculture was not only about food, but also about strengthening government and Afghans’ confidence in their government. Agriculture was giving the people of Helmand an opportunity to see that the government was working for them and doing things that the insurgency could not. We helped the Afghan government show farmers the alternatives to growing poppy. We demonstrated that Afghan farmers could still provide for their families and also live in a more secure environment if they focused on other crops.
The last 30 months were the most challenging of my life, but the people with whom I served helped me to face each challenge. The men and women serving in the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, as well as my colleagues at the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development—all of these folks were essential to helping me make an impact in the lives of Afghans. They helped me through the hard times and together we celebrated our successes. Each one is a true hero.
I am honored to have served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
-Ryan Brewster served in Iraq from 2007-2008 and Afghanistan from 2008-2010. For more information about USDA’s work in Afghanistan, visit www.usda.gov/afghanistan.