Illinois State University Media Relations

September 2012

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Lt. Col. James Keith sees hope for Iraq

photo of James Keith and Iraqi childrenJames Keith is guardedly optimistic about the future of Iraq.  He feels that country can become a model of parliamentary government and be a source of stability in a volatile region. His optimism comes from witnessing – and being an active participant in – the efforts to bring about peace in that nation.

For much of 2011, Keith, a faculty member in Illinois State University’s Military Science Department and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, served as a civil affairs officer in Iraq. Working from Joint Base Balad, a large military installation about an hour’s drive from Baghdad, Keith and his civil affairs team helped U.S. military commanders establish positive relationships with key local leaders and the local Iraqi population. The team’s work was also part of a larger effort to transfer the sprawling base back to Iraqi military command.

A large part of Keith’s work involved meeting with mayors and other community leaders to identify ways to meet the pressing needs of the civilian population. “Our mission was to help Iraqi leaders find Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems,” said Keith. “We wanted those solutions to be sustainable and based in the community. That way, when there were successes, they were Iraqi successes. We wanted the local Iraqi leaders to get the credit because that would help build their credibility and lead to longer term stability in the area.”

photo of James Keith handing out supplies to IraqisThe U.S. withdrawal from Joint Base Balad involved a massive effort to pack up and move out military equipment and other materials. Some items, such as mobile housing units, concrete barriers, office equipment and other machinery, were being left behind. Keith’s team helped transfer those serviceable items to local officials who could put them to use. Much-needed medical supplies were donated to civilian and Iraqi military clinics. Sports equipment, personal hygiene items and school supplies were also delivered to communities in the Balad area.

“For me, one of the most satisfying projects was transferring the oversight of a water treatment facility from the U.S. military to an Iraqi government ministry,” said Keith. “That allowed the facility, which served six villages and around 25,000 people, to continue operating. Making sure basic services like that are functioning goes a long way toward building trusting relationships and maintaining stability.”

The relationships Keith and his civil affairs team worked to build were instrumental in reducing violence in the communities near the base. Although active combat operations had ended in the area, sniper fire and attacks with mortars and improvised explosive devices – or IEDs – were an ongoing danger to civilians and U.S. and Iraqi military personnel. In violence-prone areas, Keith worked with Iraqi leaders to plan goodwill events.

“We had monthly events where we invited a number of Iraqi children from those areas to the base along with their chaperones for a soccer game,” said Keith. “The kids and the adults who came with them got a chance to interact with U.S. military personnel in a non-threatening manner. It really helped humanize the situation for everyone involved. The gunfire, mortar and IED attacks in those areas stopped after those events.”

Keith’s mission in Iraq brought together two major aspects of his life: a military career and a deep interest in international affairs and public service. An Illinois State alumnus, Keith joined the Military Science faculty in 2000. He went on to complete a master’s degree in public service in the Department of Politics and Government.

“I was able to bring a lot of what I learned in my graduate program to my work in Iraq,” he said. “I really have to credit my professors in Politics and Government. What I learned from them had a big influence on me and how I approached my mission.”

Keith noted that the guiding principles he and his team worked by in Iraq transcended language and cultural barriers. “If you treat people with respect, that respect will be returned,” he said. “Humanizing other people prevents further violence and leads to finding solutions to the problems people face.”


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