In March, I enjoyed welcoming home two USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service employees from 18-week tours of duty in Afghanistan. There they devoted long days using their wildlife expertise to reduce aircraft hazards to American and coalition aircraft at Bagram Airbase and Kandahar Airfield. It was my honor to help recognize them for their service from November 2012 to March 2013.
On behalf of the USAF I presented Keel Price, a district supervisor in New Mexico, the prestigious USAF Award for Exemplary Civilian Service. I also hosted Smithsonian Institution representatives who acknowledged assistant state director in Idaho, George Graves, for his contributions.
Certainly these are notable accomplishments, especially for civilian USDA employees. What significantly impressed me, however, was that Price and Graves had volunteered for this hazardous duty not once but twice. Both served an earlier tour at Bagram. Each year since November 2009, six biologists volunteered to serve for a four-month temporary detail.
Both Price and Graves demonstrated an extraordinary commitment working extended hours six and seven days per week. Their families, too, should be recognized for their sacrifice, supporting their husbands and fathers in this important work
The Exemplary Civilian Service award is given to one whose exceptional service significantly contributes to command mission accomplishment. Despite a host of obstacles – including extreme weather, rough terrain, and the potential of unexploded mines – Price coordinated the people and equipment needed to remove wildlife habitat near Kandahar Airfield. WS biologists in previous work rotations recognized and recommended removing habitat that particularly attracted large birds, a high risk to aircraft. Habitat management is the single most important activity that can create a safer airport environment. Even in the best of conditions, however, such modifications are often the most difficult to accomplish.
In a model of interagency cooperation, Graves received appreciation from Dr. Carla Dove, of the Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Lab. That facility identifies biological samples from bird strikes, helping airports understand the species causing local strikes. In turn, that information guides a wildlife management plan. Graves, who holds a master’s degree in wildlife biology, has provided more than 1,300 specimens during his two tours. Dr. Dove notes, “He is really going the extra mile for us with specimen contributions. His labeling and organization of shipments is the best!”
The WS mission is to provide expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts and allow people and wildlife to coexist. Price, Graves and their colleagues have reduced damage at the warzone bases by approximately $2.6 million, decreasing wildlife strikes by about 65%.
To these men, like others that have served in Southwest Asia, we say, “Welcome home, and thank you for your service.”
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