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John Matel Goes to Iraq

I am going to Iraq to be a provincial reconstruction team leader in Al Anbar province.  I am starting this blog to keep track of my experience.  Maybe it will be interesting to people who know me.

This is John Negroponte and me at a meeting of PRT personnel.  I am the bald guy (among bald guys) in the lighter colored suit.

PRT Leaders Meet John Negroponte 

 Follow this link for the NPR story with one of my comments.


Why I Volunteered to Go to Iraq

In thinking about why I decided to go to Iraq, I decided first to eliminate things that were NOT key factors.  I do not feel pushed to go to Iraq.  On the contrary, I am happy with my life in Virginia.  My family is great.  I have a job I love, probably the best job I have ever held.  I own a home, a forest & just about everything I really need or want.  Money is not a problem for me anymore.  My retirement is reasonably secure.  The State Department did not push me to go.  On the contrary, I got to my current job for the next two years and one of my biggest regrets has been that I am leaving bosses and colleagues who want me to stay. 

So what is pulling me to Iraq? 

Patriotism is my biggest pull.  I feel a little embarrassed to put this front and center.  Our ironic age tends to dismiss these sorts of things.  It is not the patriotism of the Sousa music and the grand parades.  Perhaps more a call of duty.   It is something I should do.  Others are doing their part; it is time for me to do mine.  I supported an aggressive policy in Iraq back in 2003.  It did not play out as I hoped, but I think there is still a good chance for success.  Beyond that, the consequences of failure are terrible.  My contribution to this success will be small, but we all need to make our small contributions to make big things happen.

Professional growth is my second reason.  The PRT job description sounds exciting.  Leading a multifunctional team like this is what my experience prepared me to do and it is the kind of opportunity you cannot get anywhere else.  A person should do what he does well.  My FS career has been good, but it is almost over.  I doubt I would ever have another opportunity to lead an operation overseas, certainly doing nothing as complex or important as the PRT leader.  

I do not see this as an opportunity for career success IN the FS.  I cannot think of many jobs in the FS that I still want.  Unlike most of my colleagues, I have not made the big deal for the follow on dream job.  In fact, I have not even bid at all on any positions at State after Iraq.   I plan to retire at the end of 2008.  I do hope that this experience will help me with a post FS life.  However, it will be indirect.  

I cannot leave out the money I will make.  State Department gives significant financial incentives for service in Iraq.   But money is not a motivator.  I am not doing this for the money, but I think that w/o the money I would feel like some kind of chump.  It is what organization behavior people call a “hygiene factor”, something you need to have to go forward, but not something that causes the action.  I will try to save almost all the additional money for retirement (Chrissy will be able to put her TSP to the maximum.   Mine is already there @ 10%) or forestry.  For example, I am already getting some wildlife plots put onto my land.   W/o the Iraq money I could not afford to do that.

In summary, my reasons are complex.  I am not sure myself why I am doing it.  I suppose that I will have lots of time to think about these things in Iraq.  Frankly, that is also one of the draws – time to think.  My predecessor tells me that the job consists of periods of intense and sometimes scary activity punctuated by periods of profound boredom.   My quarters are a 9x17 shipping container (w/o a bathroom) in the middle of a desert.  I figure this will create some forced introspection.  In the past, whenever I have been in these lonely and/or disrupted situations, I have come up with some new ideas that have worked out.

I am not very worried about being killed or seriously wounded.  I understand the danger and am aware of the risks, but I also can figure the odds.  I could be wrong.  If that does happen, I will have led a good life and gone out when things were still good. 

That is the story so far.  My year in Iraq is about to start; let’s see how it ends.  

John Matel

Vienna, Virginia

September 16, 2007




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testing comments

I look forward to keeping up with your experiences in Iraq.
Be safe.

Thanks for serving our country, and not being a State Department weenie.

Must be something to visit Abrahams old campsite. I just retired and am off to the Philippines and Asia in the next couple of months. I wonder is there are any PRTs there that might be of interest to me. Of course bordom will not set in for a couple of years.
Must say I have great respect for those willing to put their money where their mouth is.
Regards Bills

Hi John;

Kevin Hughes here. I have not served my country to date but name is in the hopper to do so now. Next round of hiring will hopefully find me there. I would like to correspond regularly. Live in Indiana. Just an American ready to serve.

Take Care and God Speed.

Kevin Hughes

My son, a Marine, will be coming there at the end of the month. It's comforting to know things have settled down.

John Matel responds

We are all aware of the risks and I am sure your son is too. However, the situation is much improved, less exciting, which is good.


I am joining a PRT in Al Anbar province at the end of March as Business Development/Tourism Specialist. Wondering if I will be part of your team. Lot of questions. Please email when you have time. Mark

John Matel responds
You are not on my team as of now, but personnel is very fluid around here, so I do not know for sure. Of course, our team is the most fun, but the others are okay.

What kind of reforestation and Nursery/orchard restoration efforts are happening in Iraq? it seems that all the war effort is geared towards destruction of the very fabric and biological resources of the country. As we occupy in the name of democracy and freedom we seem to be the very source of the hatred we seek to eliminate? Is this true?

How are we rebuilding the farms and forests when our bulldozers and troops are portrayed or are the destroyers? How can I, an American tree farmer, help my Iraq counterparts and be part of a different mission in Iraq?

A mission of peace and reconstruction. Is such a mission possible? Is our goverment so bent on command and control, with killing our supposed enemies, that we can't see the trees or the forests or the peoaple who subsist in them? The debate back here in Bedford and Franklin County is not wether we should win in Iraq but how badly and at what cost we will lose?

The perception is that Iraq is a tar baby that the US is now stuck too, and we too are getting pulled down to our own ecomomic and social peril. Worse yet we seem to have become the killers of hundreds of thousands of Iraq civilians and infesting our own country with graves and injured warrriors who will be damaged for life. Is Iraq worth all this? How can we change this outcome and reverse the excesses and bad decisions of our government? Good luck and stay safe.


John Matel responds

The environment in Iraq is in very poor shape and this destruction was 4000 years in the making. I don't think we can restore the whole country. That will take more time and recources than we have. What we are trying to do is an "ink blot" strategy, where we help restore some parts and hope they will spread as people see the success and want to copy it.

If you read back among my articles, you will see examples

A couple of examples are http://johnsonmatel.com/blog1/2008/04/water_in_the_desert.html#comments and http://johnsonmatel.com/blog1/2008/03/one_farmer_to_another.html#comments, http://johnsonmatel.com/blog1/2008/01/lawrence_of_arabia.html#comments or http://johnsonmatel.com/blog1/2007/12/plexiglas_tannenbaum_tatooine.html#comments.

And maybe a longer one - http://johnsonmatel.com/blog1/2007/12/great_glorious_and_grandiose_a.html#comments

BTW - if you are talking about winning as an Iraq that is reaonably democratic, stable and not a threat (which is what victory means) we will probably achieve that.

A lot of people are talking about Iraq and how much money USA put to reconstruct this country. The solution is very simple although is complecated to achieve. 1) make a servey for the resources( natural+ human) in each province of Iraq. 2)Invest on using these resources through the western world componies and using the people of Iraq to do the job.3)Invest in changing the life style of the Iraqi and their living to mach the modern living in the world. 4) DON'T Support corruption from our government, our componies, Iraqi government, and Iraqi contractors.
Beleive me by doing so you will gain a rich friend in the middle East for ever.
Thanks for listening in anticipation.


thanks. We are trying to follow your advice. It is simple and good. Unfortunately, simple things are sometimes not easy to do. I have confidence in the Iraqi future, although I know it won't be perfect.

Thank you for your post on Water.

I have been reading your blog entries and enjoy what you have to say and your perspectives.

What a great opportunity you have been given.

I am the president of a five member board of directors of a Community Services District (we supply water & sewer services, to a population of 24,000).

I enjoy researching and studying groundwater needs locally and worldwide, so your recent post caught my attention.

I would like to hear more on this subject, in your journey.

How do you get the water you drink?

A bit more on ancient wells, in the area? Their history.

How deep are they?

Thanks again for a great post.

Cook Barela, Riverside, California


Our drinking water is from wells and produced by RO.

The wells vary. Some are as much as 300 meters. The ones we are talking about are 50-100, as I recall.

We have an oasis on camp. I have a post re in November.

John, are you still at Al-Asad? I came across your page through random searches about War Dogs. I'm interested in knowing more about the dogs on base there. I am an artist living in Washington State and am working on a project called "At Your Service" which will feature dogs who provide a service either to their owner, handler, or community. I have been trying to find a link to the current war in Iraq to feature a war dog, and would love to possibly get some sort of pictures I can paint from. I was thrilled when I came across your blog, as my only son (thank the Lord) returned lst year from Al-Asad as part of the VAQ 139 Navy squadron. I have pictures of him in many of the same pictures featured on your blog site. Any help or reply you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

I think I posted all the dog pictures I had. There are three different posts featuring them. There is also a working dog photo on my entry about Haditha.

The picture that I missed (too slow with the camera) was a patrol of Marines coming in with a dog on either side.

We don't actually have many dogs on Al Asad. I see them when I go out.

Jack, your sense of patriotism and mine hinge on whether we believe what our country is doing is appropriate, legal, and ethical, or not.

These criterion neither make your patriotism nor mine, right or wrong. They instead constitute the personal yardsticks and perspective by which we determine whether an act is patriotic or not.

I knew this war in Iraq was wrong before the invasion began, that the costs would be too high and other options not exhausted, and the fact that there was in imminent danger to the U.S. proffered by Iraq. Hence, from my assessment, serving in Iraq is to serve a bad cause for America.

Your assessment of the invasion of course, must differ, if you are to support a position that serving there is a patriotic duty. Because, to serve a cause one knows is wrong for America is not patriotic, but, something opposite or other.

I opposed the War in Viet Nam, though I enlisted during it. But, I didn't then, and never have, cloaked my enlistment as anything other than a decision for my own personal motives having nothing to do with patriotism or duty. In fact, I had a duty to remain out of the military during that time, by my opposition to that war. But, my duty to myself, my future, my education, my self-interest, was a higher duty, or so it seemed at the time.

I am always suspect of those who justify going off to kill or support killing portions of humanity as somehow noble and patriotic. The only situation I know of which one can truly claim to be patriotic is when one's own nation and homeland is attacked and one chooses to defend it where other options exist.

Your case however, is different. You role in Iraq is not one of supporting killing a portion of humanity, but, one of reconstructing a portion of humanity to a level of dignified existence and less privation. And that is a very worthy and laudable action, regardless of whether the motives were personal, humanitarian, or patriotically viewed.

This is one of several reasons I respect you as a person, and your involvement in Iraqi affairs. Your blog is largely a testament to the affirmation of live and quality of life for fellow humans, and that makes your blog laudable, as well. Good Showing!


Thank you.


I have read your blogs with interest - especially Anbar sheep culture.

I am a Livestock consultant in Australia. We have a contract to train some Iraqi people here in Australia.

My subjects are genetic improvement of sheep and drought management/feeding.

I haven't been to Iraq so it's difficult. I have spent 18 months on a demonstration farm in Libya.

I'd appreciate any information or links you have re sheep breeding or feeding in Iraq.


I asked my ag-advisor to send you an email, but we cannot seem to get through. Can you send him one? Dennis.neffendorf@aa.mnf-wiraq.usmc.mil. Let me know in another comment if you have trouble getting through.

Thanks for doing the blog. My husband is there working for the State Dept. also and it's nice to be able to read about the places he's been or going to. Thank you for your patriotism.

Hello, I happened upon your blog by total accident but I'm very happy I did. Thank you for posting your story. Your positive outlook on life and example of helping out our fellow man is inspirational.

John -

Sorry we never met up. I have a similar difficulty in explaining to people why I am here.

Have a good ride back.

Joshua Rosenblum
Anbar PRT

"Patriotism is my biggest pull. I feel a little embarrassed to put this front and center. Our ironic age tends to dismiss these sorts of things. It is not the patriotism of the Sousa music and the grand parades. Perhaps more a call of duty. It is something I should do. Others are doing their part; it is time for me to do mine. I supported an aggressive policy in Iraq back in 2003. It did not play out as I hoped, but I think there is still a good chance for success. Beyond that, the consequences of failure are terrible. My contribution to this success will be small, but we all need to make our small contributions to make big things happen. "

G`Day from Australia
John I worked with you in Al-Asad AirBase, Good blog.

Alex Bennett

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