Kelly Pajak combines an Army career with a passion for sustainable development

Working on a sanitation system for Mosul, Iraq, opened her eyes to the need to work closely with motivated local leaders.

Courtesy of the US Army
Maj. Kelley Pajak has a 'double life' as both a US Army officer and a person eager to help overseas development projects succeed.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, Maj. Kelly Pajak’s burgeoning career in development would be inspired by how she dealt with Iraq’s garbage.

The Minnesota native was stationed in Mosul, Iraq, from 2007 to 2008, a period she described as “hostile and dangerous," with improvised explosive devices] (IEDs) exploding "almost every day.”

Attached to the US Army’s Civil Affairs Unit, Major Pajak began to work closely with the city’s municipality director.

“This gentleman risked a lot because he believed in Iraq and believed that the city could be more than it was,” she recalls. “It could be representative of where Iraq could go." One of the major projects he was working on was sanitation – from getting garbage collected to burying it. "He wanted Mosul to be a clean city,” she says.

To Pajak, the endeavor seemed to make a lot of sense.

“The [US] military wanted it because one of our beliefs at the time was that IEDs could be hidden in trash,” she says. “So if trash was removed, it was safer for both us and the people.”

“When I got in there, I thought ‘what’s holding this up?’ We want it, and he wants it – so what’s the disconnect?”

Pajak researched the issue and explored the necessary channels to put a plan into action. She continued to work with the director and his staff, and even arranged for the group to be flown to Jordan to coordinate with the United Nations Office for Project Services.

Once the project was launched, Pajak says, “It was a complete overhaul of the entire city.”

“It doesn’t take a lot to do a lot,” she says. “You just have to be committed, and you definitely have to work, and you have to listen to the locals’ needs. You have to listen to what they’re saying, and how they’re thinking it’s going to happen. That stakeholder piece – not trying to say ‘OK, here’s how we’re going to clean the trash.’ ”

She was able to work with a man "who intimately understood his city and would be able to shape what would come forward; that was pretty big for me,” she says.

That cooperation would later become her guiding principle to approaching development .

Despite the deftness with which she manages to navigate the seemingly disparate worlds of sustainable development and the military, to others it may seem as if Pajak is leading a double life.

When she told Army colleagues that she would be taking a leave of absence to pursue a master’s degree in sustainable development at the School for International Training (SIT) Graduate Institute, some colleagues called her a “hippie” and a liberal.

Once she arrived at the Washington DC campus, Pajak was seen as a hard-nosed conservative. She recalled how her classmates, among whom were returning Peace Corps volunteers, often sought her out to benefit from her unique perspective on what they were studying.

How does a career military officer blend in her interest in sustainable development so effortlessly? Pajak acknowledges the contradiction, and the passion she holds for both fields.

“In a perfect world, development and the military shouldn’t be merging – it’s not our purpose. But more often than not, we’re asked to do those things,” Pajak says from her current post at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Pajak takes a realist’s approach. For her, as long as the Army continues engaging in the sphere of development, she wants to do it the right way, which includes involving stakeholders as much as possible, rather than imposing mandates. 

It was during her time in Iraq that a development worker planted the seed in Pajak’s mind to return to school and get her master’s degree. While working with a civilian construction team with a contract from USAID, Pajak become close with a Palestinian colleague. The two would talk during free time about Pajak’s work on a water sanitation project.

Pajak stayed in touch with the Palestinian, who eventually connected her to the SIT Graduate Institute, a development-focused institution administered by the nonprofit group World Learning. In the summer of 2012, she began her degree in sustainable development, with an emphasis on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

“The ‘do no harm’ concept is first and foremost in everything we did in class,” Pajak says. “It’s really important in the military to have that perspective because we have a lot of power, and if wielded incorrectly it can do a lot of damage to the societies that we’re working in.”

Even though Pajak is eligible to “retire” from the military, she is determined to continue to apply the principles and practices she has learned both during her Army career and in the classroom.

“I’ve gained a ton of experience, the entire military has, and I keep learning," she says. "I want that to stay, so when the Army does get involved in development, we don’t make the same mistakes. People need to develop on their own – you can be a catalyst, and you can help the process, but you can’t push it on people. I want to impart the patience to understand that.”

• Rose Foran is a senior writer for World Learning, a nonprofit organization advancing leadership through education, exchange, and development programs in more than 60 countries. Currently based in Washington, DC, she has lived in Amman, Jordan; Jerusalem; and Paris and covered issues ranging from the Syrian refugee crisis to French identity politics. She holds degrees from Johns Hopkins University and L'Institut d'études politiques de Paris.

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