From Army General to AmeriCorps VISTA

Retired U.S. Army Brig, General Tim McAteer followed his military service career with a term as an AmeriCorps VISTA
Chris Suriano, AmeriCorps VISTA

When it comes to building sustainable change, this isn’t Tim McAteer’s first assignment. He discusses the difficult process with all the nuance and complexity of someone who has been down this path before. Community buy-in sure doesn’t come easy, for example.

When it comes to building sustainable change, this isn’t Tim McAteer’s first assignment. He discusses the difficult process with all the nuance and complexity of someone who has been down this path before. Community buy-in sure doesn’t come easy, for example.

But to drive home his point, McAteer is willing to table the intricacies and strip down “sustainability” to its bluntest, barest form: “You don’t just finish a project, take a digital photo, and move on.”

It’s a refreshing insight from someone whose career has required him to move on a lot, from one mission to the next.

McAteer is an accomplished Army veteran – a recently retired brigadier general with 29 years of service – and now a first-time AmeriCorps VISTA member expanding food sovereignty across Wyoming. In the military, his command and staff positions ran the gamut and the globe: assignments in Kuwait and Iraq, leading battalions in Afghanistan, disaster relief in Haiti, and overseeing strategy, plans, and policy for U.S. Africa Command.

McAteer’s new role as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension appears quite different at first glance. His supervisor, Lina Dunning, sums up his service as “finding ways to ensure that people living with poverty have access to fresh, local, healthy food in a way that still benefits local producers.” McAteer has been mapping resources, conducting needs assessments, and even organizing a statewide conference in December in an effort to ensure his project has a lasting impact.

Dunning is the Director of the Action Resources International VISTA Intermediary Program in Laramie, Wyoming. This is not the first time in her career that she has supervised an AmeriCorps VISTA member. “But no,” she quickly adds, “I’ve never supervised a brigadier general.”

Tim McAteer is serving with AmeriCorps VISTA to battle food insecurity in Wyoming.

McAteer was inspired to join AmeriCorps VISTA after returning to the U.S. following his final Army post in Germany. Like many veterans who decide to join AmeriCorps as a second chapter of service, he appreciated that national service is an arena for people of like spirit to accomplish missions together with a sense of purpose. Though McAteer was drawn to his Wyoming project partly by the allure of the Rocky Mountains and the American frontier, he was also still reflecting on the extreme poverty and hunger he saw in West Africa during his time as Deputy Director of Strategy, Plans, and Policy at U.S. Africa Command.

“It was really an eye-opening experience,” explains McAteer. “Getting to see the conditions there from a policy standpoint. You have massive amounts of people living hand-to-mouth, fighting hunger. I saw all that and thought about governance and development issues, on a human level as well.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that his AmeriCorps VISTA position is one that addresses food security on both a statewide and an individual level.

As different as a year of AmeriCorps VISTA may initially seem when compared to a full career in the Army, McAteer can’t help but draw surprising parallels between his military service and his national service. The main constant through every project is the goal of sustainability.

After a tragic earthquake leveled Haiti in 2010, McAteer assisted the nation’s recovery process as an Army Brigade Commander. As McAteer explains, the Army played a critical role in a large, interagency process. He had the forces, the manpower, and the sense of urgency necessary to help Haitians rebuild, but he soon realized the key to long-term sustainability was effective coordination of resources. With so many organizations and agencies deployed to assist, McAteer needed to break down barriers among them and make sure everyone was working from the same page, towards the same end.

Back in Wyoming, McAteer explains that he sees many of the same dynamics at play in his collaborations with the state’s food producers, retailers, policymakers, and agencies. His task is to build bridges between these actors and help them connect the dots in order to improve statewide food security in a way that is beneficial to everyone. The real difference, McAteer acknowledges, is that change outside the military comes at a naturally slower pace. “It’s not that they lack urgency,” McAteer clarifies. “They just sometimes lack resources.”

Dunning explains the challenge further: “As [Tim] has been able to meet with people, he’s seen how passionate they are. But most of the people he talks to are volunteers or business owners, and many of them just don’t have the time as a volunteer to, say, spearhead a statewide coalition or local food movement. Their plates are full trying to make a living, trying to keep their heads above water.”

That’s where the role of an AmeriCorps VISTA member comes in.

“That motivates me,” says McAteer. “They’re willing to put in the extra time to move forward these social causes. [To them] this is a side job, a passion project. I needed to learn to be more patient and empathetic to their views and perspectives.”

He’s also keenly aware of how fragile sustainable development can be and what steps he must take in Wyoming to ensure that his project remains successful long after his AmeriCorps VISTA service is over.

During a second stint in Afghanistan, McAteer was south of Kabul along the infamous two-lane highway called the Ring Road. He was visiting the city of Ghanzi where his battalion had begun building some infrastructure during his previous deployment the year before. The results he saw as he looked around town were mixed. “You returned and ran into people you knew, and a lot was gone. Some of the things you really thought were sustainable, weren’t.”

But then he heard some laughter from a nearby schoolyard and recognized it as a girls’ school that he had started building his first time around. The sound of a healthy education. “You get a generation, 10 - 15 years, to get an education. That is the sustainable capacity that could last.”

In only a few short months, Tim McAteer’s one-year term in AmeriCorps VISTA will come to a close. It’s a difficult reality, but he’s come to accept it. “As badly as I want to finish, I’m going to have to pass the torch. But hopefully the foundation [we’ve built] is in clay.”

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