Following the Call to Serve Again
When U.S. Army General Jonathan Wainwright discharged his troops following the end of World War II, he encouraged them to “start being a leader as soon as you put on your civilian clothes.” Seeking a sense of purpose and mission is a common desire for military veterans when they leave the service. It’s not a surprise that many have found their way to USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.
On the surface level, it’s easy to view the military and humanitarian domains as polar opposites. The stereotypical images of camo-clad warriors and peaceful altruists paint a picture of two groups destined to clash.
“I will be the first to admit that as a soldier, I viewed humanitarians as ‘bleeding heart, tree-hugging, granola eaters,’” U.S. Army veteran David Bopp said. “I experienced equally negative perspectives and stigmatization when I attempted to transition careers. Aid workers that attended the same training courses as myself demonstrated entrenched apprehension and concern as to whether my background would make me somehow ‘incompatible’ as a humanitarian.” Bopp now serves as a USAID Humanitarian Assistance Advisor to the Military.
Yet, veterans have a long tradition of joining USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), after leaving active duty service.
“I joined BHA for similar reasons that I joined the Coast Guard: I wanted to continue working in a career field that serves others and saves lives,” explained Mara Langevin, a former helicopter aircraft commander and the first Asian-American female aviator in the U.S. Coast Guard. “Both the military and BHA have amazing people working in remote and dangerous environments who are ready to respond at a moment’s notice to serve a greater purpose and help others.”
From former master sergeants to colonels, pilots to infantrymen, they now use their skills in logistics, communications, strategic planning, operations, and leadership to help USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance efficiently and effectively deliver humanitarian aid around the world.
Meet a few vets who have found another way to serve.
Cate Klepacki, U.S. Air Force (2001- 2014) / Now: Deputy Manager for Operations, currently assigned to BHA’s Northern Ethiopia Response
“Like most of us at BHA, I’ve always gravitated toward professional opportunities that enable me to serve others. Thanks to early influences from those around me and a love for flying that started when I was very young, joining the Air Force presented the chance to both serve and pursue my dream to become a pilot.
Service is generally defined as the act of engaging in an activity for the benefit of others, whether we choose to serve our nation and its people through military service or by helping populations in need through humanitarian service. Fire fighters, EMTs, police officers, social workers, teachers — are all serving others. What we each hope to achieve through various kinds of service may not always be the same, and the risks associated with how we serve may vary. But we share the same desire to safeguard, empower, and improve the lives of others. In my view, we are more alike than we are different.
My experiences in travelling to and working in other countries changed the way I saw the world, and it’s one of the reasons why I left military service to pursue humanitarian work. As a military officer, much of my time abroad was rooted in national security interests. Working internationally in a humanitarian capacity has enabled me to shift my focus toward human security — concentrating less on the security of the state and instead giving priority to individual protection and empowerment by placing individuals at the center. In human security-centered efforts, self-determination is valued and individuals are empowered to play a role in shaping their own future. I believe that by focusing on localization, independence, and increased equity and social inclusion for women and girls and marginalized and disadvantaged groups, the result will be a more secure and connected world for all.”
Felicia Long, U.S. Air Force Reserve (1995- 2011) / Now: Senior Training and Development Director
“As a medical professional in the Air Force Reserves, I carried the Red Cross armband instead of a weapon. My focus was ensuring that military members not only had the mental wellness to safely return to duty, but more importantly, the ability to return home to their families and lead productive lives in the community.
During my service, I supported humanitarian missions of rebuilding and restructuring civilian hospitals in underserved communities, where the waiting lists for medical care, including mental health services, was several years long due to a lack of professional staff and services. I aided people who were struggling with personal addictions, domestic violence, and other mental health conditions. However, my most noted role was as the Squadron Suicide Prevention Manager, which not only allowed me to provide direct care to service members who were trying to cope with their personal stressors, but also educate leadership and fellow airmen on the importance of taking care of one another.
Much like my role in the military, the mission of BHA aligned with my personal values. I enjoy helping others and helping people learn to help others. In my role as a training and development professional within BHA, I found another opportunity to help people be skilled and ready for duty.”
Fritz Little, U.S. Army (1979–2014) / Now: BHA Management Integration Team Leader
“Whether you are in the military or work for USAID, you have one thing in common: You put your mission, which is working for the greater good, above yourself. You understand that you are never going to become rich and famous in the Army. The same applies to USAID. But the reward is also the same in both: job satisfaction and knowing that every day when you get up, even on the worst day, your job is important and relevant.
I spent 35 years in the military. Over that time, I did 11 combat deployments. Working in special operations civil affairs, we had a lot of freedom of movement. We went to places that USAID was not allowed to go. We would go in and take a look at the civil infrastructure and analyze the humanitarian needs. A lot of times, we would make first contact with people that would later become USAID beneficiaries. We did these initial assessments all over the world. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to get this ‘on the ground’ perspective, to see the situation first-hand and help figure out what we were going to do about it.
When I came home from Desert Storm in 1991, I took leave and went back to my hometown, Rochester New York. I remember getting off the plane and seeing the hall lined with signs. I assumed there must be a local high school or college sports team flying in. But the closer I got, I began to realize it was my name on the signs. I didn’t know what to do. At that point, I had been in the Army over 10 years and nothing like that had ever happened to me. When I entered the army in 1979, the perception of the military was very different, and you didn’t even wear your uniform when you were traveling. It was shortly after Vietnam and the military was not a very popular place to be.
Now, when people say ‘thank you for your service’ my response is ‘thank you for your support,’ because it really means a lot, and it is nice to get acknowledged for the sacrifices that you have made.”
Mara M. Langevin, U.S. Coast Guard (1991–2001) / Now: Humanitarian Assistance Advisor to the Military at U.S. INDOPACOM
“I chose the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) because I felt its mission aligned with my personality, especially within the Coast Guard’s aviation field. In Coast Guard Aviation, the primary mission is search and rescue. I couldn’t imagine anything more rewarding than pulling a person out of the ocean and saving them from peril. After my first rescue, I had such a feeling of satisfaction that I knew I wanted to devote my life to helping others and saving lives. I served 10 years in the USCG, flying search and rescue missions as a helicopter aircraft commander, and was completely fulfilled, both personally and professionally.
From my experiences, one notable difference is that Coast Guard assistance and rescue missions typically involve a few people having more direct contact with the people being saved. In contrast, during a response with BHA, we provide assistance to whole communities, possibly saving thousands of lives.
With BHA, my engagement has broadened to work with many different partners such as NGOs, UN organizations, U.S. and partner country militaries. Interestingly, I’ve actually traveled to more military bases with my current position as a Humanitarian Assistance Advisor to the Military over the last three years with BHA than I ever did during my 10 years in the U.S. Coast Guard.”
David Bopp, U.S. Army (2005–2009) / Now: BHA Humanitarian Assistance Advisor to the Military
“After serving as an Airborne Rifle Platoon Leader in a particularly oppressed neighborhood in Baghdad, many of my perspectives underwent a profound change. I saw the suffering of the Iraqi people. Although my platoon took its fair share of casualties and I dealt with much personal loss, it hardly matched the suffering of the people around us. My dismay at the suffering around me quickly earned me the nickname ‘Lieutenant Hugs and Kisses’ from my battle-hardened men. The youthful idealism of wanting to be a ‘hero’ had little relevance in the face of the realities found on the streets of Baghdad.”
“This became clear to me after an improvised explosive device targeting our patrol devastated the neighborhood. Through the smoke and fire I caught sight of a man on the road carrying his 3-year-old daughter, limp in his arms. Seeing this man weeping over his child had a catalytic effect on me. I was filled with sorrow, rage, and frustration. I had been trained to fight the enemy but had no idea how to remedy the suffering around me. I felt completely helpless.”
“In 2018, I returned to Baghdad with USAID. I was expecting it to be an extremely emotional and challenging experience; however, this is not the Baghdad I left. It has been so gratifying to see the positive changes that have occurred in Iraq. There is still much work to do, but where the country is now was a pipe dream back in 2007.”