Shah left unspoken the issue of suicide that USAID must now confront. With Dempsey’s death as the first known suicide from either of USAID’s Afghanistan or Iraq programs, the suicide forces the agency to deal with an inescapable problem: how to help its employees who deploy to the same war zones as the military but who don’t always have access to the same kind of assistance. Civilian culture may not have the military’s taboo against seeking mental-health assistance, but unlike the Defense Department, which has struggled to arrest the vast suicide problem within its ranks, civilian agencies such as USAID and the State Department are governed by different privacy rules that hamstring those agencies as they try to help employees who may be suffering from post-traumatic anxiety, depression, or worse.
Larry Sampler, who heads USAID’s programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, traveled to Michigan in August to attend the memorial for Dempsey. Sampler said Dempsey’s suicide means USAID must now look at how best to help those who have deployed to war zones for the agency. “The physical and emotional resilience of our staff is of paramount importance to us: To me personally as the leader of the Afghanistan and Pakistan effort,” he said in a statement to FP. “In our experience, returning staff often may not even know they’re having difficulty adjusting until they’ve been out of Afghanistan for awhile – and we want them to have and to know about the extended and enduring support network we offer.”
USAID has deployed more than 2,000 “direct hires” through Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. Many of them, like Dempsey, are considered “foreign service limited” (FSL) officers. That means they enjoy many of the same benefits of Foreign Service officers, but can’t be promoted or moved to other offices or departments. About 150 FSL officers are in Afghanistan currently. After each deployment, each one gets a “high-stress outbrief,” but due to privacy concerns, USAID isn’t able to contact any of them after they leave federal service to ensure that they aren’t suffering from deployment-related issues or other maladies, like alcohol abuse or depression. After a deployment, supervisors may only hear about those kinds of problems unofficially, through the bureaucratic grapevine, because of the way privacy regulations govern civilian agencies. And even then, if a problem is identified, USAID, unlike the Defense Department, can’t force an employee to undergo treatment.
That has sparked some soul-searching within the agency, and in light of Dempsey’s death, Sampler and USAID are trying to find a way to reach back to those past workers for the agency to make sure they know there are services available to them should they need them. “We’re doing everything we can to reinforce that there are resources available to help people who are at risk of substance abuse or suicide and that there is no stigma attached to taking advantage of these resources,” Sampler said.
That’s not to say the agency doesn’t offer help to those who have served in war zones. All USAID staff members selected for the Afghanistan program are required to go through mandatory training and support sessions prior to their departure and after they arrive home. The agency also offers free, confidential counseling, available 24 hours a day by phone or in person, before, during, and after the deployment.