Soldier-Possible DFL Congressional Candidate Steve Sarvi Interview
Just as it takes courage to jump out of a plane or serve in Iraq, it takes courage to leap into politics. Steve Sarvi has done both and has been mentioned as a possible DFL candidate to face Congressman John Kline (R- MN02) in 2008. Steve has been in the Army for nearly 20 years and is on track to be part of the longest deployed Minnesota National Guard unit in Iraq. He's been there since March of 2006 and is hoping to return home in late July or early August. He's also the former Mayor of Watertown, MN.
Inside Minnesota Politics has an exclusive audio interview with Steve you can listen to here. Since he's on active duty in Iraq, he really can't talk much about running for office, but we did get to talk about how he's helping local governments get started in Iraq and how the City of Victoria, Minnesota (his employer) has been very supportive of him and his family while he's been in Iraq.
On his website, Steve describes his political leanings.
"Simply put, I am a Democrat. That my ideas and values spread from center to left of center, speaks to the strength of the Party. I appreciate the willingness of Democrats to embrace the things that bind us together, rather than focus on that which sets us apart".Here are some text excerpts from the interview. The entire interview is in the podcast audio.
Why are you in the military? Why do you take this type of dangerous work to do?
Steve Sarvi: I've been in the military since I was 17, other than a break in service when I got off of active duty. I felt like I needed to give something to my country at a young age and found I was good at it. I guess I've really never had that question asked of me... why do you do it? I guess someone needs to do it. I'm good at it. I'm good at working with my soldiers and I get a lot of satisfaction for the work that I do. It certainly is not an easy thing to do, obviously, to volunteer for something like this. To say good bye to my family, my friends, to work... and have to come over to an environment like this. But I don't think I could have looked my soldiers in the eye and watched them go off and stayed behind. That's just not the kind of person I am.
What are you doing in Iraq?
Steve Sarvi: I'm what's called a Civil Military Affairs Officer. And what we're doing is helping the local Iraqis with reconstruction projects. My main focus is in rural villages ...they're in some very bad shape as you can imagine. Infrastructure wise they're in need of just about everything. So what we do is we go into these areas and we do an assessment. We meet the people. Find out what their needs are. And then we work through with the local leaders either the Sheik or the village Mayor. And we work through with them the process of doing projects for them. But what we really want them to do is learn how to do it themselves. So it's a real mentorship process to get the locals to figure out ways to identify projects that are needed and then go to their own government and get approval.
What the military does then is come in with funding for smaller level projects. So we're able to provide the funding while they end up doing all the heavy lifting and getting approvals through their government.
It sounds like you're helping people learn how to run a local government.
Steve Sarvi: Yes, to a certain extent. It's different than the work I was doing in Kosovo, where I was actually working and helping to mentor a small village government. Here the local governments are almost non-existent. So we're not really doing much as far as that goes with setting up a government and talking through process and procedures. It's much more "we need a school in this village" so how do we engage the minister of education. How do we insure that we're going to have teachers come here. How do we get the approvals through them.
And then as we provide the funding we like to use the local workers because unemployment is so very high. We like to hire locals to actually build the facilities that go into their own villages.
As you can imagine it's a very complex environment. There's inter-tribal conflicts. There's conflicts between individuals. You've got construction workers. You've got contractors who are all basically tottering on the edge and they need jobs and it's a life or death matter to them. So there's a lot of emotion. There's a lot of pent up demand. This is four plus years since the invasion. They thought their lives were going to improve immediately. So there's a lot of expectations we have to knock down as well.
It's a growing process. They get infrastructure needs identified and some taken care of. And on our side we gain security by becoming friends to them, in some sense. And they look out for us. It's working out well in the areas we operate in.
How has your work in local government helped you out with the work you do now in the Army?
Steve Sarvi: It seems like I gravitate towards these positions. Same with in Kosovo. I'm an infantry soldier. And as a platoon Sergeant, my job is to train my soldiers for combat. And I did that at Camp Shelby when we were going through training and for the first three months that we were here. But we quickly learned that we needed to do civil-military projects even in the remote areas. My battalion reached out to me because of my background in the city government. I've been a city administrator for the City of Lanesburo, City Administrator in Watertown and currently in Victoria. And plus six years as the Mayor of the City of Watertown. So a lot of the issues, as far as infrastructure goes, a lot of those things apply. Learning how to engage people, talk to them, figure out what their needs are, work around issues... interpersonnel issues. A lot of those skills I think directly reflect on how we do it.
Plus of course we got to bid projects. The bidding process, as you can imagine it's a far different environment than what you have to deal with in the United States. But I understand the basics of it from the work that I do in the US and I've learned an awful lot being over here about the way that they work.
You gravitate towards these positions no matter where you are in life. And for some reason whether it was in Kosovo or here, I just end up doing these types of projects. Maybe it's my strong suit. And I get to see a different side of the war than most people get to see.
What kind of support have you received from home to get through these months, these years that add up when you're overseas?
Steve Sarvi: I'll tell you, without a family, without friends, I can't imagine getting through this. So my wife, my kids have been just wonderful about it. It's difficult of course, but they understand what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. And they've been fully supportive. My family has been completely supportive. Work (City of Victoria) has been just marvelous. The City of Victoria has time and again been called to be true patriots. What they've been doing is maintaining my current salary and I just give them my guard pay. So I'm not losing any money by being over here. And that's a huge financial burden for many soldiers that come on active duty from the guard. The end up taking quite a large pay cut. But the City of Victoria in my case, and many employers in Minnesota are doing the same thing, and it's very encouraging for us. Without that support system, you take your eye off of what you're doing over here. You're worried about what's going on at home. You have to stay focus obviously when you're here.
We wish you the safest travel from Iraq back to the United States.
Steve Sarvi: Thank you. And I hope everyone pauses for a moment on Memorial Day and thinks of the soldiers that we've lost not only in this war, but in other wars.
Photos courtesy of SteveSarvi.com