Assistant Dean William Whobrey, director of Yale Summer Programs, will leave Yale Wednesday for Monrovia, Liberia, where he will serve as the senior U.S. military observer to the United Nations peacekeeping mission there.
A colonel in the Army Reserves, Whobrey will work as a link between the peacekeeping force and humanitarian relief agencies, addressing problems such as malaria and food and water distribution. The mission is not a first for Whobrey — the German medieval scholar and one-time German Department director of undergraduate studies also served in Bosnia during the mid-1990s, and he has served in the military for 25 years.
By gathering the different groups working in Liberia, Whobrey said he hopes to facilitate relief and avoid duplication of efforts.
“The job is really an active role in coordinating the military activities and civilian activities so that they can talk to each other,” Whobrey said.
Although a cease-fire is in place in Liberia, Whobrey said the situation could change at any time. Diseases such as malaria and cholera are problems in Liberia, Whobrey said. When he leaves Monrovia, he said land mines will be a danger.
“I carry a weapon, which I think is necessary,” Whobrey said. “[But] I wouldn’t have any bodyguards or anything like that.”
Whobrey began his military career in the Reserve Officers Training Corps as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. After five years of active duty, Whobrey went to Stanford University for his doctorate in German medieval literature and joined the reserves.
In 1994, Whobrey joined the civil affairs branch of the army reserves, which he said consists of people with civilian skills, including lawyers, doctors and engineers.
“Our job is to form a link or to be the bridge between the military and the civilian world,” Whobrey said. “We wear a uniform, but we also can interact with governments or civilians in a way that regular military officers cannot do.”
Whobrey said this mission has new significance for his family.
“It’s something that you try to prepare for,” he said. “From my wife’s perspective, we’ve done it before.”
But his son, who was 3 years old when Whobrey went to Bosnia in 1996, now finds the mission harder, Whobrey said. Whobrey’s daughter, who is studying international affairs at American University, now appreciates his work from a new angle, Whobrey said.
Whobrey is scheduled to return in April, when he plans to retire from the reserves.
Whobrey said his academic work shapes his military duties. He has gone to Germany to teach NATO officers about civil affairs, and he teaches military subjects at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
“I could be asked to go to a country and reestablish their education system,” Whobrey said. “[But] there’s a more generalist aspect of civil affairs where you’re basically proficient at getting people to work together.”
Law School professor Harold Koh, an expert on human rights and international law, said Whobrey’s role as a U.S. military observer will be important given the United States’ historic role in Liberia. As an academic, Koh said, Whobrey will be able to see the broad picture, but he will also have to translate his vision to the day-to-day work of relief and reconstruction.
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said he is confident in Whobrey’s skill as a leader.
“He’s a wizard administrator,” Brodhead said. “For all I know, he knows how to restore the water system and the judicial system.”
Diplomat in residence Charles Hill said the United Nations mission in Liberia is unique due to its many layers of international involvement, including the U.S. military, the United Nations, and West African military forces led by Nigeria.