Henry Wooster, who grew up in Thomaston, returned from Iraq last fall where he served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer.

Wooster was the deputy director of the Office of Provincial Affairs and worked out of the Embassy in Baghdad. That office was the headquarters for provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs.

“These were the groups of Americans who lived and worked every day outside of the international zone — or ‘outside the wire,’” Wooster said in a phone interview.

For Wooster’s year in Iraq, the PRTs included about 1,000 people in the field; they were American officials and civilians working for the State Department. There were 23 PRTs and 49 locations.

“They were in every nasty corner you have heard of and many you haven’t heard of,” Wooster said. He said PRTs were in Mosul, Anbar Province, Basra, and other significant places.

“The idea behind the PRTs was to … build or rebuild governance capabilities out in the provinces,” Wooster said.

He said another part of the mission was to link the provincial capitals to the federal capital of Baghdad.

“If you work with the crawl, walk, run thinking — the idea was to get these guys [Iraqi colleagues] crawling and hopefully get them running at the end,” Wooster said. “As they moved through those phases what we wanted was to get them tied back into the center so they could build a sense of accountability both ways.”

The PRTs were all different, but, for example, political advisors would work on governance with a Provincial Council. They tried to build up principles such as transparency, accountability and credible voting. They worked on budgets, and helping Provincial Councils learn how to get what they needed from the central government.

PRTs also worked on agriculture. “It was astonishing to me the degree to which agriculture was undertaken,” Wooster said.

There were projects and advice on hoop houses (industrial scale greenhouses), crop rotation techniques, and irrigation and water. “Water was a huge problem,” Wooster said. He said the U.S. Foreign Service did not have water specialists and water engineers. The State Department, which was in charge of this mission, recruited these specialists from the United States.

Wooster said the PRTs consisted of people from many different government agencies, including career government people from the Justice Department, for example, and civilians who were specialists in drinking water programs or hoop houses or foot and mouth disease.

“These were all things we didn’t have in our toolkit as we went to war, and these were all things that had to be developed in the process and over the years we’ve been in Iraq,” Wooster said.

Security was always a major concern for PRTs, Wooster said. Wooster said the PRTs relied on the military for security to go to “meetings” — to see a factory or meet government officials — and “each movement was a life and death combat patrol.”

The PRTs reported to the Office of Provincial Affairs, and Wooster’s job last year was to start drawing down the number of teams, in accordance with U.S. policy.

Wooster lived and worked at the Baghdad Embassy from September 2009 to September 2010. He said it is a surreal atmosphere — like a campus but with high perimeter walls and armed guards at the gates. He said many people carried guns.

“If you are a career diplomat as I am it is very unusual to walk around one’s embassy area with every other person walking next to you who is carrying a submachine gun and wearing body armor,” Wooster said. “That’s not what we normally do, whether the embassy is in London, Paris or Tokyo.”

People lived in fortified housing that could withstand rocket fire. There were bunkers to use for cover when there was incoming rocket fire. Going from the apartment to the office, or wherever, “You were always keeping your eyeball on where’s the nearest bunker,” Wooster said.

Rockets fired from outside the Green Zone can hit around the Embassy compound, Wooster said. The incoming rockets sound like a train coming into the station, but too fast and too close, Wooster said. Car bombs detonated in the city of Baghdad, a few miles from the Embassy, made the whole place shake.

Today’s conflict in Iraq includes many elements with differing agendas.

There are Shiite extremists that may have ties to Iran. There is al-Qaida in Iraq. Those are different groups, but have points of convergence, Wooster said.

“Do they both not like to see U.S. troops in Iraq? Correct. They both don’t,” Wooster said. “Would they both try to kill U.S. diplomats or U.S. troops? Sure. Are they keen to see us leave? Yes. Are they the same groups, do they do the same things? No.”

The Shiite-Sunni conflict is separate; and it’s a zero-sum game about who will be at the top and run things. “It’s permanent for them,” Wooster said. “They live there. It’s not a project.”

Thomaston connection

Wooster said his dad’s family called Thomaston home for generations, and his mother was an immigrant to United States.

“I grew up on Knox Street in Thomaston and then on Roxbury Street in Thomaston, so that’s home for me,” Wooster said.

He attended Thomaston Grammar School and Lura Libby before going to boarding school. He has a cousin who lives in Rockland. Wooster said he owns the house where he grew up, but rents it out.

The diplomat is a commissioned officer in the U.S. Foreign Service. Wooster and his colleagues don’t wear uniforms, but they are shot at and bombed in their service. He said many Americans don’t understand the risks taken and the work done by U.S. Foreign Service officers in Iraq and other places.

Wooster is now in Washington, D.C., as the director of the Office of Iranian Affairs. Wooster actually spent some of his youth in Iran because his dad was a military advisor. “It was a big contrast to Thomaston,” Wooster said.

Wooster said those who serve in uniform or with the U.S. Foreign Service do it because it’s a “calling and a duty.” He said bugles and drums for diplomats returning from overseas combat areas are not expected, and not asked for. But for that reason, the public may not see the “tremendous dedication to duty and service that many people have,” Wooster said.

Wooster said he enjoyed running into people from New England while he was in Iraq, Russia or Tajikistan. Meeting Mainers was a special treat, he said.

“I’ve always been proud to be a son of Maine,” Wooster said.