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.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tap, Tap, Tap

Is this thing on? Is there anybody out there?

I am indeed a horrible blogger. But hey, life is busy, and the blog ends up getting left behind. I will try to be better. Maybe!

I am enjoying Foreign Service life. The great thing about a European post is that we travel a ton, do cool stuff every weekend, and generally enjoy life. I'm working pretty regular hours (some very late nights occasionally, but it's doable), and also really enjoying the job. It's interesting and challenging. You have to be self-motivated a lot, because there isn't necessarily someone telling you what to do or how to do it. I like that, though. The down side to a European post is that there isn't much of an Embassy community, which can be a little rough on the spouses, especially. It's not the end of the world, but something to keep in mind.

All of a sudden, I've been at post almost a year. It's almost impossible to imagine. Bidding has come around again, too. It's exciting to be looking at bid lists and dreaming of our next assignment. With little equity, we are looking to get out of Europe (like we had a choice!) and to head to the developing world. It looks like we'll get the opportunity to do that. It's been a whirlwind of post research and priorities. Fingers crossed that it all works out!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Long and Short of It

So, I had Flag Day, I posted once, and then. . .nothing. I had the best of intentions, I swear. But post-Flag Day was a whirlwind: training, packing, logistics, selling things, buying things, figuring out things, getting things wrong, redoing, undoing, throwing away, more packing, saying goodbye. . .and that was just the DC half of the adventure. There was the GETTING TO POST (always a bit painful), and then once at post, there was the learning of new job, unpacking, replacing lost or broken things, unpacking, unpacking, unpacking, and getting to know a new city. . .all with a small child. So hopefully you can see why something had to go by the wayside, and blog, it was you, my old friend.

But now that the dust has settled, I'm hoping we can get reacquainted.

I am loving Foreign Service life (setting aside the ridiculous 16% pay cut the lovely Congressman Reed has introduced. . .more on that later). The job is challenging, interesting, impossibly hard at times, rewarding, demoralizing, unique, creative. . .fabulous. It's everything you thought it would be. Not every day, mind you. Not even every week. There are definitely moments that are. . .less than stellar. Bust stepping back, overall, it feels like a really good fit. I feel like I am contributing to the betterment of my country. I feel like I am making a difference. Not necessarily in a huge change-the-world-overnight way, but in a journey-of-a-thousand-miles-starts-with-a-single-step way, most definitely.

Here is what I have taken away from it so far:

1. Take it slow. Don't leap in and volunteer to do everything at first. Don't tell everyone what you think from the minute you hit the ground. Hang back. Let things develop. Give yourself a chance to acclimate, and to learn who everyone is, what they're about, and what they do. Let the dust settle, and give yourself a chance to see the big picture. No matter how good your instincts are, it will take a while for everything to fall into place, and you'll be better off if you give yourself a chance to figure out how things work and where you might fit in.

2. That said, figure out where the holes are, and innovate. Offer yourself up. Figure out where you can be value-added. Whatever your portfolio, the nature of this career means that there is room for you to define your role in a way that has interest for you while also having value for your post.

3. Whatever you do, do it well. Be the best you can be.

4. When you have figured out what you are doing, and you have figured out how to do it well, then--and ONLY then--volunteer for extra stuff. You will not only learn new skills that way, but you will meet new people. But your boss needs to value you for your core roles first.

5. The "easy" posts are not necessarily so easy, for you and/or for your family, for both personal and professional reasons. Remember that EVERY post has its benefits, and it also has its costs. As you go through your tour, learn to embrace the benefits and live with the costs. Love what is to be loved, and keep in mind that no matter how much you hate the bad stuff, it's only temporary.

6. Don't sit around waiting for someone to tell you what to do or how to do it. Move forward with your job (keeping in mind the points raised above). If you are doing it wrong, or they want something else out of you, they will generally tell you. You will not necessarily get as much guidance or have as much oversight as you might have imagined, but part of the reason they chose you was because they knew you were capable of succeeding without guidance or oversight.

Anyway, those are just my insights from the field thus far. I have another post rolling around my head about this job, the proposed pay cuts, the sacrifices, etc., so I promise I won't disappear again for another six months.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Weekend Update

First, I know that people who read this blog, especially Foreign Service folks, will want to know where we are going for our first assignment. I am sorry to leave you hanging for so long. After much debate, I have decided that I am not going to post that here.

I have thought long and hard about the security issues attendant to blogging, and about how transparent I want to be in general. I read a lot of blogs while I was trying to decide if the Foreign Service was the right fit for me and my family, I read a lot of blogs while I was going through the seemingly endless hiring process, and I continue to read a lot of blogs today. I admit, I always want to know where people are going. I blog because I like being part of a community, I like having a place to vent about FS life where people actually understand what I am talking about, and I also like the idea of giving back to a community that has given me so much. Digger long ago convinced me that there is value to FS hopefuls in blogging, and I have learned so much from the many bloggers that I have read in recent years. I feel like in some small way I am paying that kindness forward by blogging. But after sitting through security seminars and thinking about the issues, I am also convinced of the value of maintaining a certain level of opacity. I harbor no illusions that I am actually anonymous--I know that I have shared enough details that any really motivated person could figure out who I am. But I think that by being a bit vague, I am striking the appropriate balance for myself in general. So I am sorry. . .the location of my first post will remain a mystery. At least for now. It may be a bit tricky to maintain that while also recounting our adventures abroad, and I may revisit that decision in the future.

So, with that. . .as I have mentioned, I am PD-coned. There were a surprising number of PD posts on our bid list. When you bid your first tour, you are required to have a stated bidding strategy, and you are supposed to bid in accordance with that strategy. My bidding strategy was to go for PD jobs. Historically, the bid lists have apparently been devoid of entry-level PD jobs, so the PD folks were encouraged to go for PD positions while they were available.

The wrinkle was that the vast majority of the PD posts were not language designated, meaning that we would not receive training in a foreign language. Before getting the bid list, I had expected to do a consular tour first, and was also hoping to get language training so that I could get off language probation (all FS officers must gain true proficiency in a language within the first few years of being hired; you cannot get tenure without establishing language proficiency). It was therefore a bit of a gamble to go for the PD jobs, as it meant that I would potentially get neither language training nor satisfy my consular requirement. This meant that on my next tour, I would need to bid only on posts that allow me to get both. And, that is exactly how things worked out. I am going to a PD job, I will not be receiving any language training, and there is no consular component to my position. The position sounds interesting, though, and it's in a location we are really excited about, so I think the tradeoffs are worth it.

It also means that we are out of here relatively quickly. I took a few training courses this past week, and have more training over the next month or so, but it looks like we will be leaving for post in about a month and a half (I don't have a firm date yet, or even a mushy one, thanks to a bit of bureaucracy that I am trying to work around). A good sized portion of my A-100 class will actually be leaving for post over the next couple of months. First, a lot of people had language skills and went to posts with immediate openings. Second, there were a lot of non-language designated posts. Some folks are even leaving in August! It's weird to think that the 94 of us won't be together any more, after spending the last month and a half bonding. Soon, we'll be scattered around the entire world.

Prior to bidding, I had thought that we would be here for language training, so the idea of leaving so quickly has taken some getting used to. We are of course thrilled to be going to one of our top choices. But, we have also been enjoying DC, and it is a bit disappointing to be leaving so soon. There are so many things we had hoped to do, and now we are having to re-prioritize. The good thing about the Foreign Service, though, is that we know we will be back in two years, because I will definitely need language training then. We'll save the to-do list.

In the meantime, we are making good use of our time in the city. Yesterday, the weather was finally just perfect for being outside. We wrangled for hours with pre-departure-for-post bureaucracy (FSO-In-Training: 0; State Bureaucracy: 1), then spent a magnificent afternoon enjoying the city: long meandering stroll, leisurely impromptu dinner, delicious dessert picnic, and sunset on the mall. Beautiful!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Flag Day!!!

We got one of our high bids. We are totally ecstatic. Most of the class seems pretty happy with their countries as well. It's a good day.