The Foreign Service Journal, March 2020

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | MARCH 2020 41 U.S. Mission Russia and the closing of U.S. Consulate General St. Petersburg within 48 hours. In a hastily arranged ceremony, former DCM Godfrey and Consul General Tom Leary lowered the flag over the consulate for the first time since 1972. The Kremlin split families, declar- ing one of a tandem couple persona non grata, leading to difficult choices and leaving the remaining FSO with new responsibilities for children who needed to complete the school semes- ter in place. Literally overnight, many of us had less than a week to transfer an ongoing, extra-heavy workload, get kids out of school, pack out of our homes and look for new jobs. As U.S. Mission Russia had risen to the occasion just months earlier, it did so again. The days prior to departure showed the best of humanity and professionalism. Everyone in the commu- nity came in to help. Critical projects were quickly picked up; impromptu babysitting and packout arrangements were made to allow staff to work; meals appeared out of nowhere, delivered to offices where many did double shifts. Trunkloads of clothing and food were delivered discreetly to Moscow-area churches. A star public affairs officer published a video farewell from mission that showed a proud, professional face of America, despite the sad occasion (featured in The Washington Post , it has gotten more than 40,000 hits). This was done even as that officer’s spouse prepared for departure. Another colleague superbly captured the mission’s resolve in an FSJ piece (July/ August 2018, “When the Going Gets Tough: Moscow” ). We were all Americans, regardless of where we were from, our rank, our home agency or our length of service. We had each other’s backs. PNG day was a blur of bags, bustling workers, animal crates, bleary-eyed sadness and logistical urgency. More than 130 exhausted family members, scores of dogs and cats and hast- ily packed belongings were loaded onto the chartered aircraft. Reminiscent of a scene from Ben Affleck’s Academy Award–win- ning film “Argo,” the pilot announced, “We are now entering American airspace” to the whoops and hollers of a planeload of friends and family. At Washington's Dulles Airport, we were met by dozens of colleagues with “Welcome Home” signs, American flags and offers of help. Many volunteered after hours to help with mounds of lug- gage, cranky babies in strollers and a fleet of taxis to get us “home,” wherever that was supposed to be. As we hugged and said our good-byes at the baggage carousel, we realized that the last weeks and months had bonded us together like no other assignment. We even had nicknames for each other, based on our number on the PNG list received from the Kremlin. Two Years On, Lessons Learned After the adrenaline rush of the PNG, many of us were pulled in two directions. First, the urgency of the basics: finding shelter and schools for our kids. Second, landing a new assignment. Family members or spouses had to start all over again on their job search. Social media lit up as informal support networks sprouted, while home agencies tried to figure out what to do with all of us. With the help of compassionate ambassa- dors and DCMs, some of us quickly moved on to other overseas assignments or were reassigned to Washington; for others, it took longer to find the right new position. About two weeks later, we all caught up at an impromptu pot- luck feast, where we told our stories because we knew others would completely understand, shared job tips and offered references. But U.S. Mission Russia was never far fromour minds, particularly the colleagues who stayed behind. We Skyped and emailed, conscious that the FSB was eavesdropping as much as ever. Our remaining colleagues were the real heroes; they put their heads down and continued to advance American interests in a hyper-hostile envi- ronment. As one wisely noted, “Those that are leaving wanted to stay; those that stayed are wondering when they’re leaving.” Leadership always matters, but true crises test the mettle of everyone up and down the management chain. Strong leadership, a close-knit country team and a sense that we were all in this together made the difference. Indeed, there was an unspoken code: Not a soul uttered a serious word of complaint. History put us all together in that place, at that time, proud of our country and determined to visibly defend our values against Russian aggression. n Ambassador Jon Huntsman, at left, with Michael Lally, bids farewell to departing staff on the plane just before takeoff. COURTESYOFMICHAELLALLY