On Aug. 15, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that one of its employees had died suddenly. The agency didn't mention that Michael C. Dempsey, a senior field program officer assigned as the leader of a civilian assistance team in eastern Afghanistan, killed himself four days earlier while home on extended medical leave. However, the medical examiner in Kent County, Michigan, confirmed to Foreign Policy that Dempsey had committed suicide by hanging himself in a hotel-room shower. His death is USAID's first known suicide in a decade of work in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. And what makes the suicide particularly striking is that it came a year and three days after Dempsey's close friend and colleague was killed in an improvised-explosive-device attack in Afghanistan.
After a decade of development and reconstruction work in two of the world's hottest war zones, USAID now has hundreds of Foreign Service officers who are potentially at risk for post-traumatic mental-health issues. While an enormous amount of resources and attention has been paid to military suicides, comparatively little focus has been given to civilians' struggles. And it's a sign that it's not only members of the armed services who shoulder the emotional burdens of war.
Dempsey's friend and USAID colleague, Ragaei Abdelfattah, an American of Egyptian descent, was killed along with three military escorts and an Afghan civilian in the attack in eastern Kunar province. Abdelfattah, who, like Dempsey, had an urban planning background, was on his second voluntary tour in Afghanistan. Dempsey was not part of the attack, but could have easily been on the mission. The death of his friend, who left behind a wife and children, may have contributed to Dempsey suffering from "survivor's remorse," say individuals outside the agency who were close to the matter. Dempsey had been receiving counseling up until the time he died.
USAID dispenses civilian economic and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan through a number of programs, typically working alongside U.S. military service members. Since fiscal year 2002, USAID has been appropriated about $17 billion for economic, health, education and infrastructure programs in Afghanistan. USAID also typically works in concert with the military's own stabilization efforts to counter extremism across the country.
Dempsey, 33, headed the provincial reconstruction team in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, and was himself on his second tour in the country. He had worked closely with USAID's Land Reform in Afghanistan initiative, designed to help Afghans create a locally owned and managed land market. He'd also worked with the USAID office in Kabul as well as with local contractors in Jalalabad to monitor infrastructure projects like upgrading drainage systems and paving and widening streets. In March, Dempsey had been quoted in local Afghan news outlets upon USAID's announcement that it would suspend work on the Daronta Hydroelectric Power Plant in Nangarhar after the agency said that the local governor had failed to fulfill his pledges to finance his part of the project.
"When Mike arrived in Afghanistan, he was immediately recognized as a leader," USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah wrote in a memo to staff a few days after his death, noting that Dempsey took on management responsibilities and drove progress on a range of issues, from land ownership to power delivery. "He impressed his colleagues with a sense of dedication and desire to always do the right thing, as well as his ability to present solutions to his counterparts in a way that empowered them," Shah wrote.
Shah left unspoken the issue of suicide that USAID must now confront. With Dempsey's death as the first known suicide from either of USAID's Afghanistan or Iraq programs, the suicide forces the agency to deal with an inescapable problem: how to help its employees who deploy to the same war zones as the military but who don't always have access to the same kind of assistance. Civilian culture may not have the military's taboo against seeking mental-health assistance, but unlike the Defense Department, which has struggled to arrest the vast suicide problem within its ranks, civilian agencies such as USAID and the State Department are governed by different privacy rules that hamstring those agencies as they try to help employees who may be suffering from post-traumatic anxiety, depression, or worse.