BY SHARON WAYNE
Thank you to all who responded to AFSA’s call for feedback after hearing the news that last-minute changes to bidding instructions were in the works. The most dramatic change was the doubling of the length of service required, from one year to two, in a critical priority country before an employee is eligible for priority bidding status.
Many FSOs plan their bidding strategy around family needs such as children’s schooling, spousal employment and proximity to aging parents; the timing of priority bidding opportunities plays high in that strategy. AFSA used your thoughtful responses to stop this sudden change and allow for an essential impact analysis.
The agency declared that it will engage with all stakeholders to identify incentives, options and other potential changes to our CPC service package to better meet its continuity objective of having more officers serve for two consecutive years to improve program implementation. For now, priority consideration remains a Foreign Service benefit for eligible employees completing a full CPC tour of 12 months.
Postponing the change will allow agency leaders with different functional backgrounds, including those most affected by the decision, to think through its full impact and likely consequences and then, importantly, to ensure that the change is managed appropriately.
In the feedback AFSA received, one concern surfaced numerous times: posttraumatic stress disorder and its symptoms. PTSD is a likely consequence of extended CPC tours that must not be ignored. Many Foreign Service members suffering from PTSD don’t realize it at first, only that they cannot focus or sleep and are constantly irritable—to name just a few symptoms.
AFSA recently hosted Ron Capps for a Book Notes talk. He read from and discussed his memoir, Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years, which provides a unique perspective from a Foreign Service offcer (and reserve military offcer) who faced PTSD.
Organizations say many things, but the way they treat their own people is what demonstrates true integrity.
It is widely accepted now that one does not have to participate in combat to experience PTSD, and Capps vividly describes the cumulative effect of his experiences.
A 2007 State Department survey revealed that 17 percent of FSOs serving in stressful environments acknowledged displaying some symptoms of PTSD. PTSD does not develop overnight, and the effects of working in CPCs are showing up in various ways within USAID. For example, some officers returning from CPCs find language training impossible (many cannot focus and need time to decompress after such high-stress posts).
Clear best practices, analysis and guidance are lacking. It is time to step back and revisit the effect that serving in a CPC can have on our employees and their lives.
We must address the stigma and shame associated with PTSD, which are exacerbated by the fact that PTSD is a very personal experience and does not affect everyone the same way. In addition, people fear that PTSD can affect security clearances.
A 2010 State Department inspector general report on unaccompanied posts stated that “Many returnees experience problems adjusting to their follow-on assignments,” and suggested that more counseling services may be needed.
USAID’s vision statement suggests: “Nations and communities must increasingly be able to meet the needs of their citizens, whether by providing health care, education or economic opportunity.”
Organizations say many things, but the way they treat their own people is what demonstrates true integrity. If, after weighing whether to encourage lengthened tours in CPCs given the negative consequences and the associated costs, USAID decides to move forward, it must be prepared to deal with the mental health aftermath. Someone’s life may depend on it.