Cultural curiosity

W. Patrick Murphy, a senior official for the United States Department of State in northern Iraq, and Brattleboro Union High School graduate, stands next to a military vehicle in Iraq. (Submitted photo)

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Twenty-nine years ago, W. Patrick Murphy was a senior at Brattleboro Union High School. Now he is a senior official for the United States Department of State in northern Iraq, leading a Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT, in rebuilding the area around Mosul.

The 65-person team includes representatives from the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, in addition to the Department of State.

"On my staff are civilian career professionals, military staff, subject-matter experts working for contractors, and Iraqi-Americans, who bring their bilingual and bicultural skills to our effort," he explained in a recent telephone interview from Iraq. "Many were originally political refugees under the previous regime, who settled in the U.S. and came back to Iraq to help in this effort."

The PRT coordinates the rebuilding of the province and the strengthening of civic institutions.

"Our objective is to build the capacity of the Iraqi government here in the province, and collaborating with them to effect sustainable development," Murphy said. "We work in a number of different sectors -- governance, agriculture, economic and business development, the rule of law, cultural heritage, health and reconstruction."

His path to senior rank in the State Department led through the University of Vermont, the Peace Corps, backpacking across Africa, and graduate school; earlier foreign-service postings include Mali, China, Guinea, Burma, and the Kingdom of Lesotho, and he spent a year at the National War College before his current assignment in Iraq.

Although he was the first person in his family to get a passport and travel outside the country, he learned early in life about moving frequently, as his father was in the nuclear-power industry; the family moved from Idaho, where Patrick was born, to Michigan and then, when he was eight, to Brattleboro.

"We spent seven weeks at the annex of the Lamplighter Motel on Putney Road," he said. "Four of us plus a cat crammed into a single room. I started out at Green Street School, but because it was overcrowded, I was schooled down at the Centre Congregational Church."

When the family moved to Brook Street, he attended Canal Street School, and then, when they purchased a home on Maple Street, he went to Oak Grove before starting at what was then Brattleboro Junior High School. Despite a short move to Massachusetts (for two years) the family returned to Brattleboro.

"Vermont was familiar territory, a state where I was comfortable and where I had an opportunity to find my identity," he said. "The last move was the best one."

He traces his commitment to international relations back to BUHS.

"When I was in high school I had two very important experiences," Murphy said. "One was the opportunity to travel abroad [with the BUHS Swiss Exchange in 1981] and experience a foreign culture, immersion in a language, and build a lifelong friendship with a foreign family. That was the foundation for a love for global issues, crossing borders, and a love for arriving in a new culture and having a go at it.

"A parallel experience was the Model Assembly Program," he said. "Mr. Tom O'Brien, Chairman of the Social Studies Department, became a close friend and mentor. His stewardship of the program created an opportunity for average students in a small town to learn about the world in the United Nations, our own Congress and citizen participation in the Vermont Legislature."

At the University of Vermont, Murphy double-majored in political science and Canadian Studies, with a minor in French. His junior year in France with UVM's Vermont Overseas Program was a full immersion -- living in the dormitory and taking courses alongside fellow students at the University of Nice. He took courses in international relations and European economics, and got to know students from francophone Africa who had come to France to earn doctoral degrees in law.

"They told wonderful stories about growing up with Peace Corps teachers -- their first and often their only contact with Americans," Murphy recalled. "When I returned to Vermont, I went straight from graduation to three years with the Peace Corps in Cameroon.

"I was a teacher of English as a foreign language for two years in a lycée in the northern region of Cameroon, on the border with Chad," he said. "It was a three-day trip from the capital. We got on the train and dropped off volunteers; two days of bush-taxi followed, and I was the last one dropped off. It was really remote, which I enjoyed from beginning to end."

While a normal Peace Corps commitment is for two years, Murphy volunteered for a third year as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, based in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.

"We had about 160 volunteers, and about half were in the education program teaching English, math and science, so I worked in management and lent support to those volunteers," he said.

"I had my first first-hand exposure to an American embassy," Murphy said. "I met an ambassador and learned a little about official American representation overseas. It was intriguing -- I observed a wonderful combination of application of knowledge of international relations, public policy, the use of foreign language and public service."

When he had completed his Peace Corps commitment, he traveled alone across Africa, hitchhiking across the Sahara Desert into Northern Africa. He traveled with just a backpack -- a small backpack, as he recalled.

"The journey was an opportunity to focus on the future, to think about what might come next," he said. "I've traveled in a lot of countries, but that was the richest opportunity to learn about myself and various peoples and countries of Africa."

When he returned to the U.S., he worked for a while, first as a substitute teacher and later with the Close-Up Foundation in Washington, D.C., before entering graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. He paid for the program by cobbling together various jobs and earned a degree in international relations, with a focus on Canadian Studies, and completed an internship in Bamako, Mali.

During his second year in graduate school, he took the Foreign Service exam, and he passed it. In graduate school had met Kathleen Norman, who was studying Chinese language and the Chinese economy; he deferred entrance into the Foreign Service for a year, and married Norman on the eve of their departure to China, where he worked in the U.S. Consulate General in Guangzhou while Norman opened Massachusetts' trade office in China -- the first state-level trade office to open in Mainland China.

After China, Murphy was assigned to Conakry, Guinea, for two years, and the couple requested an extension for another year. During that third year, their first child, Seamus, was born.

"After Guinea I was assigned to State Department headquarters in Washington, where we spent the next five years" he said. "I worked on Burma, Laos and Haiti, then I studied the Burmese language for a year. We had our second child, Meghan, and our third, Gillian, and then the whole family packed up and moved to Rangoon to the U.S. Embassy, where I was the political and economic chief."

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After three years in Burma, he was assigned to a two-year stint as Deputy Chief of Mission, second only to the ambassador, in Maseru, in the Kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa. When the family returned to Washington, he spent a year at the National War College before volunteering to go to Iraq.


As the United States Military draws down its combat troops in Iraq, Murphy is leading a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Ninewa Province around Mosul.

"We're going through a little transition now in concert with the responsible drawdown of U. S. forces," said in a recent phone interview from the trailer -- "Containerized Housing Unit" in military language -- on the army base where he is stationed. "As the military draws down, we're doing less bricks-and-mortar construction, and more capacity-building, more training of civic leaders, tribal leaders, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], and religious leaders Here in Ninewa Province, the objective is that Iraqis will maintain the ability to run their own province and chart their own course for future development."

Although Murphy is a civilian and represents the diplomatic arm of the United States government, he works closely with the U.S. military.

"My primary counterparts are a brigadier general here who is the deputy commanding general for the division that operates in the north of Iraq, and two colonels," he explained. "One commands a brigade combat team, and one commands an engineering brigade.

"Those three individuals and the units they command -- thousands of soldiers -- those units are a key part of the PRT," he said. "Collectively we form what we call ‘Team Ninewa.' The wonderful thing about our men and women in uniform is that they bring many skills. We collaborate with lawyers, engineers, security trainers and civil affairs specialists. Many are reservists, so they bring private-sector skills from their lives in the U.S."

He said that the PRT takes the lead in diplomatic engagement with the Iraqi government.

"That's where we have particular expertise," Murphy said. "All the other undertakings we share in common."

He and the other civilian members of the PRT share an American military base with several thousand U.S. soldiers.

"The army provides security, a place for our offices, food -- ‘life support' is the term we use -- but more importantly we collaborate on all of our programs and efforts here," he said.

He noted that on a personal level, in 2003 he was not fully convinced that the invasion was in the United States' national interest.

"But I look forward and not back, and I believe that our national interest now is to make sure this effort succeeds," he said.

This is Murphy's first foreign-service assignment away from his family, and though he knew it would be difficult -- and it is -- he doesn't complain. He said he deeply admires the soldiers, many of whom are on their third or fourth deployment in Iraq.

"Yesterday, one of my security detail soldiers told me he was on his fifth deployment to Iraq, with family at home," he noted. "Since I arrived in June, four soldiers from this base have been killed; I stand in awe. Two of those soldiers were killed helping my team."

He volunteered to lead the team in Iraq after rising through the ranks of the foreign-service branch of the U.S. State Department. He said that his passion for languages, living in other cultures and political science had combined in "a dream career."

"The final ingredient for me has been public service," he said. "I enjoy representing my country, serving my country. Both of my grandfathers served in the army in Europe during World War II, and I always admired the pride they took in that service.

"Have suitcase, will travel," he continued. "Each foreign service assignment is almost like a brand-new job. The policy aspect remains constant, and as I get more senior, there's more opportunity to formulate and shape policy. We need to have good diplomacy, good language skills -- that's the passion."

The U.S. Foreign Service is competitive at every level, beginning with a rigorous entrance examination; successful candidates rise through a career structured much like that of officers in the U. S. military.

"It's a challenging career," Murphy commented. It's competitive to get in and competitive to stay in. The challenges we face in foreign policy are complex. Nothing comes easy. It's hard work, and the hours are long, wherever you serve. Here in Iraq we work seven days a week, on average 17 hours a day. It's not an easy career, but diplomats of all countries share pride in serving their countries."

He recalled the first time he had represented the U.S. at a conference.

"As a mid-level officer, I attended a summit of the Organization of American States," he said. "It was my first opportunity to sit behind a sign saying United States of America, behind an American flag."

"It brought me back to Brattleboro, Vermont, and the Model Assembly at BUHS. It was like living the Model United Nations -- for real."

The interview ended at 10 p.m., Mosul time, and Murphy was headed back to his office for a few more hours' work.