International affairs major works with military and locals to bring positive change to Afghanistan

By Kelley Freund ('07)

Kevin Melton ('04) getting a lift in Afghanistan

Kevin Melton ('04) getting a lift in Afghanistan

On Nov. 5, 2009, a roadside bomb went off in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, an area considered the birthplace of the Taliban. The explosion tore apart an armored vehicle, killing two soldiers and forcing two others to be medevaced for treatment.

Kevin Melton ('04) was in that vehicle. He had arrived in Afghanistan only 10 days earlier. “An event like this changes your life,” says Melton. “You realize what violence really is, and nothing can really prepare you for that. It’s a rude awakening.”

Melton is not a soldier. And though he got a rocky start, the international affairs major spent the last 28 months as a civilian in Afghanistan. He worked closely with members of the military, including Four-star Generals Stanley A. McChrystal (former commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan) and David H. Petraeus (now director of the CIA), and local government officials to develop and coordinate rebuilding strategies. Melton provided policy guidance and strategic and operational analysis and helped coordinate civilian military planning efforts with local organizations.

It is the duty of the military to focus on security and protect the population, but what happens when they are no longer there? Who’s going to enforce policies?

It was Melton’s job to build up stability and make sure government systems were in place once troops secured areas. He uses what he calls the “bottom up/top down strategy.” He often asks: Is the local community strong enough to come together? Can they interact with higher levels of government? And do the national ministries at the top levels have the ability to plan and budget to provide basic services for locals?

“We can’t just cut and run,” says Melton. “It’s not a simple thing to build a government. People take advantage of having a government.“

Other things we take advantage of? Radio. Melton asked about creating a radio station in Arghandab. His team took a basic room in the district center and hired a disc jockey that connected with the local population. Then they handed out radios at a town hall meeting. “People just ran out with the radios, ecstatic,” recalls Melton.

Melton previously worked for Chemonics International, an international development company, on projects in other conflict areas, including Colombia, Liberia and Sudan. A Rotary Peace Fellow, Melton has also attended the University of Queensland in Australia where he studied peace and conflict resolution. He uses ideas from his thesis daily in his job.

Kevin Melton ('04) with General Stanley A. McChrystal

Kevin Melton ('04) with General Stanley A. McChrystal

“We’ve been using the same tools for decades — post World Wars, post Cold War,” Melton says. “It’s like using a 1940 Model T to go around an Indy raceway. Not everybody is going to flock to a democratic institution; certain parts of the world don’t adhere. My thesis and my work today take a social science view — mixing conflict resolution and social science.”

Melton is an ideal example of an alumnus embracing JMU’s Be the Change mantra, but he says it’s the people he’s helped along the way who inspire him. He remembers the man he met while working at a small NGO, who now works in Canada in international development. Or the man who could hardly speak English, but now has two businesses and is a consultant for a general. “I can’t top that,” says Melton, “but I can help individuals like them be a catalyst. That’s the change I’m interested in — giving others the chance to do amazing things.”

Melton is currently doing consultant work for the State Department and the Pentagon.

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