Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack And U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry at a Ceremony to Honor Steven Thomas Stefani IV | USDA Newsroom
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News Transcript

Release No. 0011.10
Office of Communications (202) 720-4623

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SECRETARY VILSACK: Good afternoon. It is an honor to be here among so many fine members of our United States Military and our U.S. civilian agencies. Thank you for hosting us.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been deploying civilian agricultural experts to Afghanistan since 2003. Among the nearly 100 who have accepted the challenge was Steven Thomas Stefani IV – "Tom" to his family, friends and colleagues at the U.S. Forest Service.

Today we are gathered to honor Tom, who until his untimely death in October 2007 was a model of how Americans and federal employees can make a positive impact on the lives of those around them.

Tom was raised in Auburn, California. His friends remember a sweet-natured kid with a sideways smile who ran around in oversized cowboy boots and a giant hat falling over his eyes.

He was the kind of boy who worked hard and made his parents proud. He raised prize-winning sheep for the local fairs where he was a standout 4-H-er. He was an Eagle Scout and an honor student. And like his parents, Barbara and Steve, Tom lent a hand to those in need in his community, helping to organize fundraisers and gatherings.

As a student, Tom studied soil salinity in the deserts of the Western United States. And as a Range Manager for the U.S. Forest Service in Nevada's Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, everything began to fall into place – his Eagle Scout background, the 4-H accomplishments, years of helping his Dad with the family construction business, his education, and a lifetime of caring for animals.

Tom loved the Forest Service and he loved the outdoors. Naturally, the challenge of Afghanistan's beautiful, hardscrabble landscape beckoned to him.

Like so many other dedicated USDA employees, Tom requested to serve in Afghanistan because he wanted to work to improve the lives of the Afghan people who live in this great country, people who have suffered through years of strife and conflict.

While some people saw only denuded grazing lands and wasted soil in Afghanistan, Tom recognized the opportunity to restore a once legendary agricultural region. He accepted his responsibility to serve as he had so many other challenges in his life -- he embraced it in a great, big bear hug.

In Afghanistan, while Tom was developing projects he worked directly to plan a large-scale poultry farm and a cold storage facility. He worked alongside grape producers to improve trellising methods. His contributions were real and they're lasting.

Tom made the ultimate sacrifice to this nation and to our nation when his PRT team convoy was sabotaged by roadside bombs. But unlike his assailants -- who scattered into the rocky hills like shadows – Tom, even today, continues to accomplish positive things for the people of Afghanistan.

While Serving in Afghanistan, Tom decided that he would build a playground, but he was killed before he could initiate the project. So, his family collected contributions toward his dream. And today, as a result of our efforts to get the Minister of Finance to approve that playground equipment, two containers of equipment are en route to this country.

There are plans to create a fellowship in his honor at the University of Nevada - Reno, his alma mater. And at USDA in Washington, a young American chestnut tree planted in Tom's honor. It's already put down roots and grown several feet. Each year, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world have a chance to stand in front of that chestnut tree and read its dedication to a man who helped build this great country and build better lives.

His life and his work and the stories about Tom's big heart and sideways smile will always be his greatest legacy. But to the 1,000 U.S. federal civilian employees here in Afghanistan who have also responded to the call of duty, Tom's story represents the essence of their service.

Today USDA is celebrating and honoring Tom's life of service -- and particularly his work here in Afghanistan -- with the establishment of the Tom Stefani Award for Reconstruction and Stabilization in Fragile States.

We intend to grant this award annually to one or more employees in recognition of their leading efforts to rebuild the agricultural sectors of post-conflict countries.

Today we want to continue working towards Tom's goals. In Afghanistan the White House has identified a strategy to restore Afghanistan's once vibrant agricultural sector as a top reconstruction priority. More USDA experts are coming to this country to work with U.S. Government partners, to help with an Afghan-led movement to build economic growth through a strong agricultural economy.

The work of civilian experts like Tom is a credit to USDA, our staff around the world, and to all those who have dedicate their careers to federal civilian service. It is also a credit to our great country. We are forever grateful to Tom and his family and to all of those and to all of you who embody his sense of service to his nation and to citizens around the world.

I want to take this opportunity to say how proud I am to be part of the USDA team and to be with a number of you who are working in this country, who are dedicating your lives to making a difference here. And I want to thank those who are also associated with the State Department, the Department of Defense, the military and USAID.

We are an all-government, one-team effort and we are making a difference. We are impacting the lives of the people of this country. You are making a difference. You are leading a life worth living and it's appropriate that we acknowledge your service today as we acknowledge Tom's sacrifice.

So Mr. Ambassador, I'd like to present to you a plaque that will be here, which will acknowledge the recipients of this award, "The Thomas Stefani Award for Reconstruction and Stabilization in Fragile States." I want to present it to you. It's got a picture of Tom helping a young person in Afghanistan and I think it's symbolic of the work that's being done here. And I'd like to present it to a man who himself has provided a lifetime of service to this great country.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you.

AMBASSADOR EIKENBERRY: Thank you so much, Secretary Vilsack, and to your team members, for making the long trip away from home to come here and to promote President Obama's strategy here in Afghanistan, of which agriculture is really the flagship.

In July of 2009 I traveled to the Forward Operating Base in Ghazni, where I met with the Texas National Guard Agricultural Development Team, U.S. civilian experts at the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the governor of Ghazni, and Polish soldiers.

Together with the Afghan Minister of Agriculture Rahimi, with our Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, with the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, we held what we called an agricultural and development shura at a place called "Big Daddy's" – it's a multi-use building at that Forward Operating Base and it's named after Tom Stefani.

When we think of Tom's untimely death, we remember the inherent dangers in the work we do here every day. But we also are reminded of the lasting impact we can make here in Afghanistan in the short-term, in a short period of time, working with our Afghan partners and our international friends. Tom inspires us all.

Tom, I know, would be very proud of our ongoing efforts and our ambitious plans to accelerate the growth of the Afghan agricultural sector in the coming years. Our Embassy's Number One Ag team will move forward and we will never forget Tom's sacrifice.

This Embassy will be proud to display and to recognize Tom's achievements to reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Ghazni Province and in Afghanistan by participating, Mr. Secretary, in this award. This award will also allow us to recognize the achievements that many others will [continue] to make to this very important cause, to Afghanistan and the safety and security of the United States of America.

I would ask that we have a moment of silence.

Thank you.