PhD commando improves US/Afghan cultural communication

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook
  • 42nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
He walks into the library holding a large box. It is a huge library, the Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center on Maxwell, but his size makes it look small. His left arm is covered in a full-sleeve tattoo, and on his right is a family crest. He flashes a big smile and extends his hand in a warm greeting. Cradled by his crested arm, the box is filled with tactical gear; he's getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan for his third one-year tour.

Dr. William Dulaney, professor of organizational communication at the Air Force Culture and Language Center, and faculty member of the Air University's Air War College, is not a typical academic. He is a biker; he rides a Harley and is a member of the Hell on Wheels motorcycle club. He wrote his dissertation on the subculture of bikers that exists in America.

He has become a sought after authority on the subject of biker culture in America, appearing in several documentaries and television shows dealing with the subject.

He was once what he calls a "snake-eater," a member of the Air Force's special operations community. He was medically retired in 1998. He doesn't tell many people about that time, adding that he believes his service is nothing when compared to what his brothers and sisters in arms serving today have done and are doing.

He is the kind of man that spends his spare time providing input to United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, designed to improve the lives of women and children post conflicts. He has been working on it for over a decade.

The snake-eater decided to become an academic while taking a public speaking course, hoping to become a more persuasive speaker. He took the course when he found himself having to lobby for funding at the Pentagon for a drone program he worked in.

He was the last person in the active duty Air Force with operational experience working with drones at the time, in the mid-1990s. He was filling a lieutenant colonel's position, Dulaney said.

"I was an E-5, I had no formal power, no rank" he said. "I was not a persuasive person. I didn't know anything about persuasion. I heard about this local teacher at the Florida State University campus in Panama City who was a really good teacher of public speaking. I also heard he was a biker, and as a biker I thought, 'I've got to go meet this guy.'"

On the first day of class, he met his teacher Gary Posnansky. After showing up late for his first class, Posnansky made a point of embarrassing Dulaney in front of everyone. Posnansky asked Dulaney to stay afterward to talk to him.

"We walk outside, and I'm carrying my helmet, and he asks me, 'What do you ride?'" Dulaney said. "I told him I ride a '53 Harley Davidson. He looks at me and says 'Oh, that's cute. That's my '47 Indian Chief right there.' We immediately fired up the bikes, and headed to the local bar and talked. It changed my life."

Dulaney was already curious as to why people think the way they do about one another and especially why they judge others. Posnansky pushed that curiosity even further, setting the then active duty Airman on his path to earn a doctorate in intercultural communication.

"I'd always had these thoughts, and I'd taken some classes to try to explore them," he said. "I'd never met anybody who could articulate it and help me along that journey until Gary gave me his dissertation to read. For me it was really an introspective journey to understand myself, but also why people are the way they are to each other."

After earning his doctorate, he spent the next 10 years as a teacher and researcher at various schools throughout the country before abruptly quitting in 2009 and going to work for the military again.

"One day an old Navy SEAL skipper called me up and asked me if I knew any commandos with Ph.Ds," Dulaney said. "They needed some help doing village stability operations in Afghanistan. I was on the tenure track. My package was complete and instead of turning it in, I walked into the dean's office and handed her my resignation."
His goal was to apply the idea of culture to the problem set of war.

He applied how a culture and a region react and relate to internal and external forces, bringing attention to this important perspective in conducting warfare, specifically when that understanding can prevent the need for kinetic realities, Dulaney added.

He began working for the Air Force Culture and Language Center in 2012 in a position that allows him to reach a wide audience.

Delaney teaches at AWC and Air Command and Staff College in the Political Military Area Strategist course. He also teaches at the Squadron Officer College and at International Officer School on Maxwell. He teaches at the Special Operations School, Hurlburt Field, Fla., at the Air Advisor Academy, Fort Dix, N.J., Senior Executive School in Washington, D.C., and at the International Health Specialists Program at the Pentagon.

"The cool thing about working at the AFCLC is that you can teach anywhere your skill-set is needed," Dulaney added.

His mentor believes his success and ability is due to his humble nature and acceptance of others.

What Dulaney understands is that other people do know things, he accepts that, Posnansky said, during a telephone interview.

Dulaney credits Posnansky for teaching him the importance of actually learning about different cultures rather than dismissing them.

"If you are going to be running around Afghanistan, you better know what the Afghans know," Posnansky said. "If you don't, you aren't going to be real successful. If you really want to make a change, you need to find out and understand who these people that you are walking around are."

He took Posnansky's lessons, and those he learned through his degree courses, with him when he first deployed to Afghanistan as a civilian.

It was in Afghanistan that the self-proclaimed country boy, raised by his grandparents in Four Mile, W.V., saw that he and the Afghans had much in common.

"When I started working with the Pashtun, specifically with the Ghilzai Pashtun in Afghanistan, we connected immediately, because it hit me that they were 'hill folk' just like me," Dulaney said.

One of Dulaney's missions in Afghanistan was putting together formal training for the Female Engagement Teams and Cultural Support Teams that were a part of the information operations strategy.

The teams there at the time were having difficulty achieving their operational goals, he said. The commanding general asked Dulaney to go find out what was happening.
After investigating, Dulaney realized that the women on the FETs had to be both soldiers and diplomats, he said.

"I came back and asked for three female warriors who have the physical ability, the warrior mindedness and the willingness to do this."

The FETs he trained went out on night raids. The female operators became essential to ensuring the safety of innocent Afghans, he said. The families were treated with respect to their culture, and the men accepted being handled by the male soldiers as long as the women in their families were handled by female soldiers. The Afghans accepted their reality and did not feel a need to fight back to avenge their familial honor.

His expertise has saved and improved countless lives.

"To effectively train, plan and conduct warfare, we need all the perspectives that we can get," Dulaney added.

There was a particular mission that sticks out in his mind.

A FET team member, who was a mother, noticed that this Afghan family was handling this one particular infant differently than the others. She asked the mother if she could hold the baby for a minute. In Afghanistan, that's a request that can't be refused. They handed the baby over, and the FET member felt something in the swaddling. In the swaddling was a treasure trove of information--a cellphone with pre-programmed numbers, different currency and, most importantly, receipts from their travels, Dulaney said.

He said the men on that team would never have found that information otherwise.

"We went from an abysmal failure to a success because of this woman's maternal understanding and her female perspective," Dulaney said.

He has also seen first-hand what can happen when there is a cultural misunderstanding. It is literally life and death, he said.

"There was an individual, and he never thought he would be in the position that he was in to influence locals in a third-world country," Dulaney said, scrunching his brows, his voice growling.

"He so disrespected the people of that place and destroyed the relationships that we were able to build there," said Dulaney. "We had reduced improvised explosive device attacks to zero; we had reduced rocket attacks by 89 percent. Next time we went outside in that part of the world, we got blown up with an IED. We had just the week before gotten an upgraded version of the Stryker, and that saved our lives."

About to deploy to Afghanistan again, he is filled with hope for the mission he has been given.

"This mission is historic. I would never in my wildest dreams have thought that I would be a part of this," Dulaney said.

He is part of a hand-picked team that will be reporting back to Congress on how best to continue the transfer of security to the Afghanistan government.

As he sets off for his third trip to the country that "isn't so different after all," he repeated his grandfather's advice, "'Boy, whatever you do in your life, it has to make a difference.'"

"I'm just trying to live up to my grandfather and his words, and I think this makes a difference," Dulaney said.