Saturday, September 15, 2012

What It Means To Be a Foreign Service Officer

I am most struck, when I think of Chris and Sean and Ty and Glen, by how ordinary their lives seems to me now.  Benghazi on a Tuesday in September?  Sure, why not.  There is much work to be done there.  

When you first join the Foreign Service, if you have a brain, there are places that you are afraid of.  You exchange a stable life for one where you can travel, where you can work on important world issues, where you can be a spectator to history in the making.  You sign seemingly a million different documents in which you swear that you will be  "worldwide available."  You might cross your fingers as you sign, thinking to yourself that somehow, you will manage to avoid THOSE places, you know--the ones you are afraid of, because the food is awful or they are dirty or you might be in danger of dying.

I wrote this a couple of years ago, just before I got an offer from the Foreign Service:

During my morning commute today, I initially felt a bit anxious, knowing that public diplomacy offers could go out today. After all, I have a very good life here. My home, freshly renovated after two plus years of hard work, has never felt cozier. The wild lupine that I've been cultivating in our field over the last few years looks like it has finally taken hold, but the orchard I put in is in need of work after a hard winter--work which should commence forthwith, but work which I will have no time for if I get an offer for the June class. The lilacs are coming along nicely after several years of hard pruning to refresh them. Spring is in the air, and the world here seems fresh and bright. We have a number of enjoyable lakefront places to escape to on the weekends now, when summer is fully upon us. We live near endless amenitites that we regularly take full advantage of. Are we really going to give all of this up for a life inherently fraught with upheaval and as-yet unknowable hardships?

And of course we did, happily.  We gave up our settled life, rented out our beautiful house, left behind our friends and family, and hit the road with the Foreign Service.  We held our breaths as our A-100 class got their flags, and were delighted when we scored an "easy" first assignment in a well-developed and stable nation.  

But there is this thing that happens in the Foreign Service.  As time passes, the things that once scared you start to scare you less and less.  The world shrinks.  You seem to know someone who has served in every country in the world.  Your office is full of people who have spent time in Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc.--and recently, too.  You see all that the State Department does to keep you safe, and that's just in your stable country.  The big scary unknown places become familiar, even if it's just through the stories of friends and colleagues. Finally, you aren't afraid of the things you once were.  The impossible seems possible. 

And one day, when you hear about a position that's opened up in Benghazi, you take it, because it sounds interesting and you believe in helping out and you want to make a difference.  You know that it might be dangerous, but State will keep you safe.  They're good at it.  They know the drill.  And you kiss your family goodbye, and you go to Benghazi to do your job, and you do a damn good job.  If you are lucky, you will walk back through the door, back to your family, in 30 days or 90 days or a year.

They make you take this seminar before you can leave for your first assignment.  A lot of us called it "Doom and Gloom."  It was all about safety overseas, and as part of it they run through statistics for how many FSO's become victims of ordinary crime, terrorism, etc., each year.  It was a sobering experience, because those numbers were not insignificant.  I think I was a bit in denial as I watched them throw those stat's at us, but sure enough, my classmates have brought those statistics to life over the last few years.  Not everyone is lucky.  Not everyone makes it through every tour unscathed.  In fact, over the span of a normal career, few will.  We all know the risks, and we take on the assignments anyway. 

Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were reportedly all good men who understood the meaning of government service, who believed in the work, and who took on a big challenge.  They were in the Foreign Service, just like me.  Gentlemen, I celebrate your service and acknowledge your sacrifice.  I am ever so proud to be just like you.  You will not be forgotten.

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