South Bend mayor talks election day in Afghanistan

By ERIN BLASKO
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It’s about 6 p.m. in Afghanistan — 10:30 a.m. in South Bend — when Pete Buttigieg picks up the phone. Half a world away, in the middle of a war zone, he sounds like his usual self — calm, confident, thoughtful.

Asked how he’s doing, the intelligence officer with the U.S. Navy Reserve, who also happens to be the mayor of South Bend, responds, “Pretty well overall.”

“We’re just pretty excited that Election Day went well,” he says, referring to the recent runoff for Afghan president, on June 14.

Accusations of fraud continue to hang over the election, threatening to destabilize the country, but turnout was good, according to initial estimates, demonstrating a desire on the part of everyday Afghans to participate in democratic elections.

“One of the things that’s been pretty inspiring around here, all the Afghans I met in the last few days had their fingers inked to mark that they voted,” he says.

For some voters, that exercise in democracy came at a high price. According to reports, insurgents cut off the fingers of 11 voters and killed at least 20 more in election-day attacks.

The 32-year-old acknowledges the safety concerns in the country.

“We are in a war zone, of course, and there are reminders of that all the time,” he says. “But I’m also surrounded by trained professionals in the military, and I’ve also got excellent training.

“Part of my morning routine, of course, is I don’t leave the room without a gun,” he adds.

Intelligence, though, not fire power, is the weapon of choice in his line of work, he told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1wiSy2i) by phone this week from Afghanistan. He is currently deployed there for six months as part of a special unit of one.

The mayor left for the country in April and is set to return at the end of September. He’s limited in what he can say about his mission.

“I can tell you that I’m working on the intersection of drugs, finance and terrorism,” Buttigieg said, commenting for the first time in any detail on his work in the country.

“I’m assigned to a counterterrorism organization called the Afghan Threat Finance Cell,” he continued. “My mission is to protect the homeland and target the most dangerous drug trafficking organizations in Afghanistan.”

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration-led unit, the cell investigates and disrupts financial networks that fund the insurgency in Afghanistan. Partner agencies include the Treasury and Department of Defense.

Buttigieg said he could not comment further on his mission, only that he works long hours. Not even his family knows for sure what he does.

“His work is classified, so we know absolutely nothing about it,” his mother, Anne Montgomery, said. “We end up talking about (Sunday supper), and I tell him things about South Bend I think he’d be interested in.”

Montgomery said she and her husband, Joseph Buttigieg, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, talk to Pete about once each week, on Sundays, often via Skype.

Montgomery, a Notre Dame graduate and retired professor at the university, noted that her son has been to Afghanistan before. He traveled there as a consultant with McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm based in the U.S., before becoming mayor.

Asked her thoughts on her son’s mission, she said, “He’s very interested in the work that he does, and that’s all I really know. ... Every once in while I ask what he’s doing and there’s dead air.”

One subject that’s not off limits is the weather.

“It’s gotten pretty warm, but only recently,” Buttigieg said. “People don’t realize that Afghanistan has a mountain climate, so parts of the country can get pretty chilly.”

Depending on season and location, temperatures in the country range from 50 below zero to 124 degrees, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As for his living and working quarters, Buttigieg described them as utilitarian.

“I get up in the morning in my bed in a modified shipping container. I usually hit my head on the top bunk,” he said. “I take a shower in the next room, which is also a shipping container. My office is also a shipping container. They’re kind of like the Legos of Afghanistan.”

But there’s a simplicity to life on base that is appealing, he said.

“You get up in the morning and don’t have to worry about what to wear (or) where your food’s going to come from,” he said. “Everything is organized here to help you concentrate on your mission.”

As he does with his parents, Buttigieg speaks to Deputy Mayor Mark Neal and city staff once each
week.

“I trust them to do the right thing and make the right decisions, but often they want to know how I see an issue or get my input,” he said.

He also keeps up online with the latest news in the city.

“I check in every day on the (local news) headlines,” he said. “So I have a feel for the public conversation.”

As a Navy Reserve officer, of course, Buttigieg is Lt. Pete, not mayor. In fact, Buttigieg said, few people he works with know about his job outside of the military.

“I might as well be a career military officer for all they know,” Buttigieg said. “At the same time, folks Google the new guy, so they catch on pretty quick.”

Reactions vary, he said.

“Obviously it’s a curiosity,” he said. “On a broader level, it doesn’t really matter. Here it’s, ‘Can the person get the job done, and can I trust this person with my life?’"

Remarkably, Buttigieg said, he’s run into people from South Bend on base, an experience he describes as “a little bit disorienting.”

“It’s always unexpected ... but it’s always nice to feel that connection to home,” he said. “It’s also a reminder how, even a little city like ours has people all around the world.”

The ability to communicate with friends, family and staff on a regular basis also has been nice: “Obviously written letters are something that still mean a lot to us over here, but the ability to pick up the phone ... “

He recalled a scene on Father’s Day, with he and a handful of other men and women perched on a rooftop, snow-capped mountains in the background, communicating over the Internet with family back home.

“The rooftop on base has pretty good Wi-Fi, so a lot of fathers were up there using FaceTime or Skype,” he said.

Letters and care packages also mean a lot.

“I really enjoy letters and photos, things I can stick up on the wall,” he said. “And the occasional cigar, which is appreciated. Soldiers are not allowed to have beer out here, so we’ve got to have some sort of vice.”

“He likes beef jerky, I think beef is hard to come by,” Montgomery said. “Some snacks, books, clippings, that’s mostly what it is. One thing he’s really enjoyed — the quarters are pretty generic, so he asked for some South Bend postcards.”

The mayor’s office sent him a flag of the city. He flew it above the base and posted a photo to his personal Facebook page, commenting, “Proud to fly the flag of our hometown over my temporary home.”

That same page includes other photos, plus links to stories, comments about things going on in Afghanistan or back home and, increasingly, Afghan proverbs such as “A river is made, drop by drop” or “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

“There are some really pithy ones,” he said of the native sayings. “One that’s been on my mind more and more is ‘Every man’s home is Kashmir to him.’ I think there’s an understanding in Afghanistan ... how important it is to be from somewhere.”

For Buttigieg, that place is South Bend, a place he said he misses greatly.

“I miss my home, I miss the people -- those are the big things,” he said. “There are little things, too. I’ve decided not to eat a cheeseburger here ... Until I get to C.J.’s (Pub) and eat a good cheeseburger, I’m not going to bother.”




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