DeSales grad sees major shift in Iraq tours

Sgt. First Class Patrick McDonald helped coordinate elections on two tours in the country.

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Almost every day I had lunch withe Iraqi election workers, says Sgt. First Class Patrick McDonald, a DeSales High School graduate who has tow tours in Iraq under his belt. You get used to eating off the same plate of rice and lamb.

WALLA WALLA - A lot changed in the two years between Sgt. First Class Patrick McDonald's two tours of duty in Iraq.

McDonald, a DeSales Catholic High School graduate, has twice helped to coordinate the young democracy's elections, first from May 2005 to July 2006, and then from August 2008 to this August.

While trying to conduct free and fair elections has been a daunting task in a country where many fear the repercussions of democratic participation, the sergeant was amazed at how much calmer the country seemed during his second tour.

McDonald returned home in August; now back in Washington, he has resumed his civilian job as the assistant to Washington's Secretary of State.

McDonald did not always know that he wanted to be in the army. In 1980, the Olympia native graduated from DeSales, and went on to receive his undergraduate degree in political science, American history and religious studies at St. Martin's College.

"If you had asked anyone who knew me in high school if this is where I'd end up, they wouldn't believe it. Military was the last thing I thought I'd do." he says.

But in 1991, at 30 years old, McDonald knew he needed a change, and he joined the army reserves.

"I felt stuck in a rut: lazy, overweight, bored. I knew I needed to get more education, but I had to find a way to pay for it," he explains. "Since I joined, it has made a major difference in my life."

McDonald earned a masters degree in Public Administration at Evergreen State, which led him to his current job in the Secretary of State's office.

During his time in the Army, McDonald has served in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and twice in Iraq. Because of his education and civilian experience in the U.S., on his first tour, he was chosen to serve as the command liaison between the military and Iraq's election coordination organization, the Independent High Electoral Commission.

Though working to provide safe elections was a team effort, McDonald had a large part to play. He coordinated security missions, assisted with voter registration, and made sure the Army's resources were properly allocated. But the election was ultimately very difficult to coordinate.

"In (my first tour), elections in Iraq were new," McDonald explains. "(Iraqis) needed lots of pushing by the United Nations. They were hard to motivate."

Additionally, more than 40 election workers were assassinated during the 2006 election season, furthering fears among voters of the violent consequences of participating in the election process. McDonald himself was injured twice, and while traveling around the country with members of the UN's election team, their aircraft was frequently fired upon. At the end of his first tour, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

While the situation in Iraq is still dangerous, during his second tour from 2008 to 2009, McDonald noticed significant changes in the national social, economic and political spheres. The market economy had noticeably picked up, and Iraqi citizens had become more invested in -- and less fearful of -- the election process.

"Iraqis themselves really grabbed on," he says. "They did most of the work themselves. They really started picking up the ball."

The growing independence of Iraqis in the election process is much needed, McDonald says, especially with the declining role of the international military presence.

"Our role continues to diminish, and they're responding to it. They get very comfortable with us, but it's important that they stand on their own," he says. "And when they do, they get the job done."

Much more still needs to be done in order for Iraq to consistently conduct free and fair elections. According to McDonald, Iraq desperately needs trained workers throughout the country to run the elections, and to legitimize and decentralize the process.

"The elections need to be decentralized. As of now, it's all based in Baghdad. Workers in other provinces need to be trained to run them," he explains. "It takes a lot of work to rebuild after every election. They need to be constantly training people early on, people who can work and develop experience."

Overall, McDonald is encouraged by the progress he has seen, and he has high hopes for the future of the country's democracy.

McDonald serves with the 448th Civil Affairs Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington. He is glad to be back in the States and is grateful for the support of friends and family during his deployments. He also looks forward to returning to Walla Walla, which he considers his hometown, for his 30th high school reunion in 2010.

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