The Foreign Service Journal, October 2019

18 OCTOBER 2019 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL FSOs are the commissioned members of the U.S. Foreign Service, America’s diplomatic corps. Required by Congress to spend the bulk of our career overseas, we serve in U.S. embassies and consul- ates around the world, and at head- quarters in Washington, D.C. Contrary to popular belief, a majority of U.S. ambassadors are career FSOs who rose through the ranks. While we don’t wear uniforms, the modern Foreign Service follows an “up or out” promotion system nearly identical to the U.S. military. We share similar institutional cultures, similar missions and an equivalent system of rank-in-person. If that weren’t enough, military veterans make up about a fifth of Foreign Service personnel. Our perks and compensation are similar to the military, and we also sac- rifice. Everywhere the military goes, we go—but we also go, and live, where the military does not. Many of our postings are to places where you can’t drink the water. Just under a fifth are to places so dangerous that we are not allowed to bring our families. Foreign Service officers and special- ists are targets for assassination and have been killed in terrorist attacks and while serving in war zones. Others have perished in plane crashes, shipwrecks, natural disasters and from tropical disease—all occupational hazards in our line of work. The Work We Do In the same way that “every Marine is a rifleman,” every FSO is responsible for representing the United States govern- ment in an official capacity. As in the military, our officer corps is divided into specialties whose everyday duties can range from the prosaic to the rivet- ing—and, more often than not, those duties have little or nothing to do with a particular administration’s policies or politics. Take me, for example. In my job, the first thing I do every day is go through the rigorous, but not particularly awe- inspiring, steps of unlocking a remote U.S. diplomatic facility so the rest of the staff can report to work. Then I check whatever requests came in from the State Department overnight and decide how much of my to-do list must be sacrificed to addressing these new tasks. If I’m lucky, during the afternoon I will have time to meet with a local official or finish some of my required reports. There are also times when what I do is deadly serious—like when coordi- nated suicide attacks ripped through churches a short way from the consulate and my family’s apartment. Washington needed answers immediately. Who was being targeted? Were any Americans injured? Had police neutralized the threat, or were attackers still at large? My colleagues and I, the only Ameri- cans equipped to answer those ques- tions, began working the phones in a foreign language. Within minutes I was talking to a woman sheltering in one of the bombed churches. Within half an hour I was able to give the department a “good enough” appraisal of what was going on. In the days and weeks that followed, it was cables researched and drafted by my team that provided State and other agencies a steady flow of infor- mation and analysis pertaining to the attacks. Recently a colleague and I, both Army veterans who served in Iraq, cried as he recounted searching through hospitals and morgues for a young American who was wounded during an even more devastating attack. My friend found this young woman, paralyzed and intubated, tucked away in the corner of an overwhelmed emergency room. Separated from her traveling companions during the attack, she had been alone for many hours while doctors worked around her, her identity unknown. She wept tears of relief when my friend found her, gripped her hand, asked her to confirm her name and whispered in her ear, “Don’t worry. The ambassador knows where you are, and we’re going to get you home.” Sadly, American citizens were killed in that attack. It was career FSOs who helped the grieving families get their loved ones home. We are also often the only people visiting Americans imprisoned overseas and those who have found themselves unexpectedly hospitalized or in other dire straits. And it is critical insights from FSOs scattered across the globe that make up most of the classified foreign affairs briefing material presented to our elected lead- ers. Convincing the American people and politically appointed officials that the career Foreign Service really does place duty above partisan considerations is made more difficult by former officers who feel the need to publicly justify their private decision to resign.