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Local Civilian and Military Hero Spotlighted
Retired U.S. Army Civil Affairs Col. Christopher Holshek, a Tri-State Lookout editorial advisory board member, was chosen for the New York State Veterans' Hall of Fame by State Senator James Skoufis.
With the opportunity to choose one veteran a year from his district for the New York State Senate Veterans' Hall of Fame, State Senator James Skoufis seeks a veteran who has done noteworthy military and civilian service. He chose U.S. Army Civil Affairs Col. (retired) Christopher Holshek this year. Holshek stood out recently for his work connecting community members with resources following July's flooding and for his efforts to address local veterans’ needs, Skoufis said.
Holshek, who is on the Tri-State Lookout editorial advisory board, has an assortment of roles and activities after three decades of civil-military conflict management experience in various settings. One role is as an international peace and security consultant and civil-military director at Narrative Strategies, described on their website as offering “unique expertise that is the foundational missing link in campaigns focused on countering terrorism, undermining terrorist recruitment, managing crises, defeating dark networks, and stabilizing civilian populations.”
Holshek’s assignments have included command of the first Civil Affairs battalion deployed to Iraq, in support of Army, Marine and British forces, featured, he noted, in Thomas Rick’s book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005; Chief of Civil-Military Coordination for the UN Mission in Liberia; and European Command Military Representative at the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as a senior associate with the Project on National Security Reform.
More recently, he has been a senior civil-military advisor for the NATO “Resilient Civilians in Hybrid and Population-Centric Warfare” and Grey Zone projects. As a vice president for the Civil Affairs Association, he develops and organizes intellectual capitalization platforms for U.S. civil affairs forces and professional development through interaction— “shop talk,” he explained— and edits the Civil Affairs Issue Papers.
At home in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley, much of his civic work is based on ideas in his book, Travels with Harley – Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity. As secretary of the American Legion Riders of Orange County, NY, he works toward Legion support of youth development. In partnership with the Orange County Youth Bureau and others, his National Service Ride project is a community-based initiative to mobilize youth to better themselves, their community and country through community service as well as to help schools integrate service-learning in their curriculum strategies in support of the New York State’s Seal of Civic Readiness Program.
Along similar lines, with the Hudson Valley Honor Flight, is an initiative to enable high school seniors and young veterans to escort veterans on Honor Flight missions. Starting in 2024, these “youth guardians” will have an opportunity to meet the veterans and, Holshek hopes, learn from them.
To clarify what Holshek’s activities entailed in his various roles, the Lookout asked him some questions, which he answered below.
What happened that first prompted you to take action with the flooding? What did you do? What was the biggest challenge?
When I saw that the flooding in the Highland Falls - Ft. Montgomery area was making national headlines that July weekend, it became clear to me, given my experience in military support to humanitarian and disaster relief response overseas, that the greatest challenge in the early stages of the response was in coordination.
So I reached out to John Flynn, who commands American Legion Post 633 there to see how I could help coordinate local response capabilities while we waited for help to come from the other side of the mountain in the rest of the county and state. One of the most important things John and I did, with the help of Retired Command Sergeant Major Tyrone King, who is on the town council, was to establish two separate centers for the distribution of supplies, to marshal volunteers, and as go-to places for the locals needing help.
One center was run by the Red Cross at the Sacred Heart Church in downtown Highland Falls, and the other at Post 688, which is right on the edge of Highland Falls near Ft. Montgomery. John and I set up the Legion Post there like the civil-military operations centers we saw in places like Iraq, the emphasis being more on response coordination than classic military-style command-and-control.
The West Point community, by the way, was of enormous assistance, even though the Academy suffered incredible damage. Among the volunteers we saw were West Point cadets who showed up between training and classes to unload and distribute supplies from the trucks coming into Highland Falls. Great kids.
This up-front surge not only helped quickly organize the effort in a way that got the most needed assistance to those most affected. It set us up for future success as, for example, when supplies poured in through many of the American Legion Posts around the County and local businesses. It also helped out with local distribution.
My wife, Rosa, who works for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, went around with John and others on a daily basis to bring freshly made meals to older veterans and low-income people hardest hit by the loss of power, transportation, etc.
Rosa, who is from Spain, came in very handy when we went door-to-door to deliver goods and talk with the Latino part of the community to find out how things were going and collect information on their issues and needs. It helped us make sure we weren't leaving anyone behind and it had a very reassuring effect on the whole community.
We were not only able to funnel outside aid efficiently through Post 688 and get it delivered to the right places, but our little center and team served as a listening and observation post to gain ground-level understanding and inform people looking to assist from over the mountain. While all this was going on, I was creating a virtual coordination center by sending out daily emails to a rapidly growing list of people and organizations to report on the situation and list what was and was no longer needed there, connecting them to the reality on the ground.
In addition to the American Legion, Heather Bell-Meyer, from the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, and my friend and fellow Rotarian Eric Hassler from the Monroe-Woodbury school district were especially helpful in organizing supply runs, getting quick relief to local businesses, and, in Eric's case, marshaling school kids to come help remove debris and so on.
Your question raises a really important point about how veterans continue to serve long after the battlefield. Our crisis response, information management, logistical and organizational skills are the kind of know-how that many veterans have to help out our communities in situations like this. Most people don't realize this when they think about veterans or drive by a local American Legion or VFW post. It's one of the great strengths of our society.
The phrases used to describe your military experience beg for explanation and elaboration. What were you doing in command of the first Civil Affairs battalion deployed to Iraq?
Civil Affairs is a little known branch of U.S. Army special operations that has been around for well over a hundred years. We helped rebuild Germany, Japan and Korea after the wars there and our ability to engage and assist populations afflicted by war has become hugely important in the largely people-centric conflicts we've seen since 9/11, and watch in places like Ukraine and Gaza.
You can get an idea of what we did back then by reading the book or watching the movie, The Monuments Men. Arts, Monuments & Archives was one of the 20 functional specialties we had to help countries recover from the devastation. But I think one of the most important things in experiences like this is that our effort to secure, safeguard, and return over four million artifacts in Europe was the first time that a conquering army in a major conflict like that went out of its way to do that, instead of pillaging, which is what the Russians did then and are doing in Ukraine. It says something about the American character that we shouldn't forget. It makes more of a difference in the world than most of us realize.
I commanded one of two Army CA battalions that supported the 1st Marine Division during the initial invasion, from March 2003 to January 2004. Beyond the vast amount of destruction we saw in Iraq was how entire populations there were traumatized not just by our military operations but also from the ten-year war with Iran before that. Other than politics, we need to remember that war is also fundamentally psychological and about people. We saw a lot of bad things done to people, especially women and children, by the radical Islamist insurgents there, and our job was to engage these people and help them find their way forward from all that. Most Americans have never seen war, which often gives us a distorted view of it through our media and movie culture.
As Chief of Civil-Military Coordination for the UN Mission in Liberia, what was your job?
My last overseas tour of duty was in 2008-2009 as the Senior U.S. Military Officer in the UN Mission in Liberia, where people there were recovering from one of the most vicious civil wars in Africa in the post-colonial era. In addition to being the senior U.S. officer in the UN mission, I was its chief of civil-military coordination. Much of what I did there helped to serve as a doctrinal template for UN civil-military coordination policy.
In the former role, I headed up a terrific group of a dozen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines - men and women who served on the UN military staff and as UN military observers - who did a great job of representing our country in a multinational operations environment, where we all wore blue hats and helmets and found ourselves in a rare situation where Uncle Sam was not in charge. We served as members of the UN military force there, as participants and not in charge of the UN mission.
We also learned how the military can be used very effectively as an instrument of diplomacy and not just an instrument of war. One of the people I had the great privilege of meeting and working with was Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who was the U.S. ambassador there at the time and is now our ambassador to the United Nations.
Our small presence there was very meaningful to both the UN and Liberia as a way of assuring people the founding country and most powerful member of the UN was there in uniform, giving us skin in the game, so to speak. But we also worked with colleagues from about 50 other countries, many of whom never met an American until they met us. I've always thought that one of the things we Americans need to do a better job of is getting in the same sandbox with people not like us and figure out a way to work with and get along with them - whether over there or over here.
What did you do as European Command Military Representative at the U.S. Agency for International Development?
My last duty station before I retired in 2010 was as European Command Military Representative at the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID is our agency for foreign development assistance, working alongside the Defense and State Departments, and I personally represented Admiral James Stavridus, who as our chief of the U.S. European Command was also the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, with responsibilities not only in European security but also in Afghanistan at the time. In many ways, it was among my most enjoyable and fulfilling military experiences, because I was putting together all that I had learned in those 30 years and making great use of it at that level—civil-military coordination, strategic leadership, and civil-military diplomacy.
I was unhappy it got cut short (U.S. law didn't allow me to serve in uniform any longer), which is why I had to hop on a Harley and process it all while riding around the country I helped protect and serve, then write a book about it. But it also led me to find ways to continue to serve my country in all the ways that Sen. Skoufis mentioned in his presentation.
For his services, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command inducted Holshek as a Distinguished Member of the Civil Affairs Regiment in 2017. In addition to his contributions to U.S. Army, Joint, NATO, and UN civil-military and peace and stability operations policy and doctrine, he has written for numerous publications on national strategy, civil-military, humanitarian, and peace and stability issues, including Foreign Policy, The Huffington Post, Sicherheit & Frieden, and the Modern War Institute.
He is also the principal author of the Peace Operations Training Institute’s course on Civil-Military Coordination in Peace Operations, which he is currently updating. As a rare American with UN field mission service in civilian and military capacities in the Balkans and Africa, he contributed to the original UN civil-military policy in 2010 and the 2017 UN Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination Standards.
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