When I was 22 years old I found myself off the coast of Somalia, specifically Mogadishu, on my first ship, USS Harlan County (LST 1196), named after the eponymous county in Kentucky. What particularly stunned me about the situation was that food was used as a weapon to keep the population under the control of the warlord factions fighting. So, when we were charged with ensuring food aid was being distributed amongst those people conflict was sure to follow. At night we watched as artillery flashed in the distance while waiting for our turn to go ashore. That monotony lasted three months until it was time to leave when our ship was relieved by a ship from San Diego. Unfortunately, for the Somali people six months later the United Nations (UN) sponsored, United States-led “peacemaking” mission would fall apart, in essence leaving Somalia to its own destiny. I was incredulous that the greatest nation on Earth backed by the UN could turn its back on people who were clearly in need.
“As we collectively and individually tackle the complex work of poverty education in our classrooms and antipoverty advocacy in our communities, it is our stories that will remind us of our common humanity,” says Brett Morash, SHECP Executive Director.
Eight years later, I was back, one year after 9/11. This time I was on another ship, the USS Barry (DDG 52), conducting boarding operations and searching for international ne’er-do-wells in the Gulf of Aden, off the port city of Boosaaso, in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. While we boarded numerous ships we never found any malcontents looking to spread malice. What we did find, or at least what I noticed, was that the official port documents we inspected coming out of Boosaaso were very professional and what I would expect to see out of any international seaport. Something was clearly happening inside of Somalia for the better. This region which was wracked by endemic violence less than a decade earlier was somehow forming stability and security from the inside. That transition bode well for the future. Although Mogadishu was still under the grip of warlordism, other parts of the country were reforming institutions.
As the months and years progressed, I witnessed the emergence of a grassroots movement—the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC)—committed to bringing stability to individual communities. The UIC’s successes made the movement synonymous with peace. And while the UIC fell apart over time, its formation out of endemic warfare and chaos had provided a glimmer of hope that stability could be achieved setting the conditions for the African Union to step in for its own peacekeeping mission.
My time in Somalia and my witness to the fits and starts of stability in a hopelessly war-torn area of the world, culminated in a personal epiphany that I needed to help. In the winter of 2007-2008 I arrived in Djibouti as a member of a Task Force that was charged with enhancing and enabling humanitarian aid in the region. During this time, I had the fortunate experience of leading the team that worked with fifteen allied nations to build capacity. This included helping to build schools, creating educational programs, assisting with infrastructure (e.g. well drilling), as well as helping the AU Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). I was inspired watching the nations of East Africa working together to not only help the Somali diaspora but also create their own task force to bring security to Mogadishu. Further, I could both feel and see that my personal efforts were making a difference thus moving the needle.
My experiences built into a lifelong commitment of service and engagement. When I returned to the United States I went on to serve at the Naval War College, where I taught others about Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response. It was from this collective experience that I decided that I would go into the social services space after retiring from the Navy in 2013. I decided that my second career was going to focus upon making people’s lives better by helping other enable solutions to emerge and flourish, and why I am at SHECP today.
I’m telling you my story, not because I want to confirm my qualifications as SHECP’s new Executive Director, but rather to encourage you to think about your own story of how you got here—wherever “here” may be for you. SHECP is proud to claim students, faculty, staff, allies, and institutions that represent an unending trove of stories. Where we come from, what we champion, and where we choose to invest our lives is more than picking a major, pursuing a career, donating to our favorite causes, or putting roots down in a community. Our experiences drive us toward challenges, surprises, and—if we’re lucky—clarity about the kind of difference we want to make.