Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

TOP STORY >> Young foreign-service officer becomes a seasoned diplomat

Senior staff writer

As a State Department foreign-service employee, Erik Ryan has briefed Army Gen. David Petraeus on Iraqi oil production, learned German in Argentina, studied Arabic and met his fiancée, Melissa Brewster — not bad for a dyslexic who had to repeat senior English the summer he graduated from Jacksonville High School.

Ryan, 38, is home for a brief visit between postings. He lived in the Baghdad Green Zone in 2008 and part of 2009. Escorted by Blackwater operatives, he ventured out into the more dangerous Red Zone once or twice a week to meet with Iraqi oil ministers and others as a liaison for the generals, he said.

In the Green Zone, soldiers and other armed personnel would remove clips from their weapons and eject cartridges from the firing chamber. But in the red zone, it was “lock, cock and ready to rock,” he said.

A soldier for eight years, Ryan broke a hip and is no longer active duty.

Ryan was born in Fayetteville and moved with his family to Jacksonville when he was 4. He attended Pinewood Elementary School and Northside Junior High School.

At Jacksonville High School, he played offensive tackle and defensive end on the football team and took many gifted and talented classes.

His father, Larry Ryan, an electrical engineer, worked for Arkansas Electrical Cooperative in Little Rock until he retired in 2007.

His mother, Helena, was born in the Netherlands and became a U.S. citizen last November.

Ryan said he wanted a career in the foreign service since his freshman year at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

“What attracted me was the travel, the opportunity (to be paid) to learn foreign languages and to serve my country,” Ryan explained.

“It’s a good job and the pay is highly competitive,” he said.

“It’s a unique time in Iraq. Success there is success for the Unite States,” he said.

He wants to see the U.S. help Iraq produce more oil and to help bring economic and political viability and stability.

“We didn’t go to Iraq to steal their oil,” he said. “We want them to produce more, but what’s good for Iraq is good for us.”

He said he was proud to have played a part in helping rehabilitate Iraqi oil infrastructure, particularly the open bidding process under which Iraq recently accepted a bid to pay a royalty to a consortium of British Petroleum and the Chinese National Petroleum Company for every net-gain barrel of oil pumped from the oil field with the oil company’s assistance.

He said that was the first open bidding on Iraqi oil fields since before the U.S. invaded in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

“They held their first bid round, and it was very transparent, which is where we want it.

Ninety-five percent of Iraq’s revenue is from export and sale of oil or natural gas, he said.

“We would write reports and visit oil workers on the ground.”

Talking to Iraqi oil officials, “We would discuss the direction (oil development) should take, and we brought in experts.

“Oil production has been stuck for about 30 years,” he said, largely because of the series of wars fought in the region.

Daily oil production is about 2.5 million barrels, he said, which is about what it was before the first U.S. invasion.

Ryan says he has little patience for those who say the U.S. invaded Iraq to take over the oil fields.

When he helped brief Patraeus, “we discussed what we see and where we can assist the Iraqis.”

He said they were there to assist the Iraqis rebuild, rework and improve their oil infrastructure.

“We no longer build hard infrastructure, we offer technical help to become more efficient,” he said.

Other foreign service employees are helping Iraqis build water and wastewater systems, including a large wastewater treatment facility in Fallujah.

“We are working through the Iraqis. They have a lot of needs.”

Ryan said a large proportion of the population doesn’t have access to potable water and, on the tail end of a drought, it has been particularly rough.

Ryan is done in Iraq for now. He’ll go to the United Nations General Assembly for a three-month stint, then to Washington for more training.

After that, he and Brewster will be posted in June to Berlin, where they will do basic diplomatic duty like checking visas.

“I like the weather in Iraq more than in Arkansas,” he said. While the temperature can exceed 120 to 130 degrees during the days of summer, the humidity is zero.

Winters are mild and fall is pleasant, Ryan said. The worst of the weather is the sandstorms, which he said more closely resemble dust storms. The sky and air can appear burnt orange.

In a preliminary six-week assignment to Baghdad, Ryan and others lived in metal shipping containers “hardened” with sand bags. At one time he slept in a corner of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, and survived a rocket attack there.

But in the just-concluded one-year posting, he lived in small but secure apartments at the U.S. Embassy, where the windows don’t open because the glass is “this thick,” he said, thumb and forefinger about two inches apart.