Few at Commerce Want Iraq Stints

By Mary Ann Akers Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The call has gone out from on high at the Commerce Department for a few good men and women.

Heeding President Bush's recent appeal for government civilians to serve stints in Iraq helping with the embattled rebuilding mission, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez sent an agency-wide memo last week imploring workers to sign up for a year in Iraq.

"I am asking all Commerce employees to consider supporting this important effort," he wrote.

Gutierrez noted that volunteers would work "under challenging circumstances with access to few amenities." On the bright side, he said, they "may" be eligible for overtime pay -- "35 percent hardship pay and up to 35 percent danger pay differentials."

But it seems that the tepid early response to the secretary's appeal for volunteers may be a reflection of the larger struggle Bush has faced since announcing his strategy to double the number of overworked and often underqualified provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq.

Since Gutierrez sent the memo five days ago to all of the approximately 39,000 employees at Commerce, he has received 40 responses. The department would not say how many -- if any -- of those responses were "yes."

"All were interested in getting more information about the opportunity," Commerce spokesman Richard Mills said. "We've been pleased that department employees have helped in Iraq, and we expect that to continue."

Of particular need are employees with expertise in banking, business development, economics and public administration. But in his memo, Gutierrez makes it clear that all are welcome. "Interested Commerce employees of any background should consider applying," he wrote.

At least one agency within Commerce, the National Weather Service, seemed less than enthusiastic about lending its weather forecasters to the Iraqi rebuilding effort for 12 months.

"By pulling people out of the Weather Service, that would be a degradation of service," said National Weather Service spokesman Dennis Feltgen, a career employee. "We don't have the surplus of meteorologists who would be able to just drop everything and go overseas for a year."

Asked if he would oblige the commerce secretary's request, Feltgen paused and said: "That is a decision that the individual would have to make personally. It's a personal decision."

Him personally?

"No, I will not consider it," Feltgen said.

Mills, a politically appointed department spokesman, shared Feltgen's initial sense of privacy -- even more so -- when it comes to the question of serving in Iraq.

"I'd just prefer not to comment about my own personal situation," he demurred.

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