Dangerous Postings: Life in the Foreign Service

Phyllis and Robert Oakley

Phyllis Oakley, a former assistant secretary of state, and her husband Robert, the former ambassador to Somalia, Zaire and Pakistan. Scroll down to read about Foreign Service workers' experiences in overseas postings. State Dept. hide caption

itoggle caption State Dept.

Foreign Service Series: Pt. 2

American forces are evacuating thousands of U.S. citizens from war-torn Lebanon. But smaller evacuations take place quite often and receive barely a mention in the media — the evacuation of families and non-essential personnel from U.S. embassies in countries that have become dangerous.

Close to 8,000 diplomats serve in posts like Baghdad, Kabul, Karachi and Jakarta — all frontiers in the war on terror.

At first glance, life inside an embassy can seem very ... American. The canteens sell tuna melts and chicken nuggets; fliers advertise pickup softball games.

But the barred windows and armed guards are reminders that the Foreign Service is not like living in America. Overseas, staying safe becomes a way of life.

In bygone days, the Foreign Service wasn't such a risky career. Phyllis Oakley remembers when she and her husband Robert lived in Sudan. It was his first diplomatic posting and the year was 1958.

"The cook and I shared a bicycle," Phyllis Oakley says. "And we didn't have a car yet. He'd take the bicycle to the market in the morning and then I'd ride the bicycle around town going to play bridge or see other people...."

Today, Khartoum is so dangerous that families aren't allowed to live there anymore. Phyllis Oakley, a former assistant secretary of state, says the world she knew is gone forever.

"Well, the thought of an American diplomat's wife these days riding a bicycle around a city like Khartoum — it just wouldn't happen."

Robert Oakley, the former ambassador to Somalia, Zaire and Pakistan, says this isn't the first wave of anti-Americanism.

"I think it's probably more profound now," he says. "You have it rooted in Islamic extremism and the terrorism of al-Qaida and affiliated groups around the world make it much more difficult than it was before."

He says the problems of the Middle East and Iraq provide a "double whammy," inciting anti-Americanism.

After the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the State Department quickly beefed up security at its embassies worldwide. Now, getting into any American embassy, either to go to work or to conduct business, is a time-consuming process, with layers of security checks. But diplomats know that their buildings are still prime targets for terrorists.

Erin Eussen, a consular officer at the embassy in Amman, Jordan, recalls one scare:

"The Marine got on the loud speaker and said, 'This is not a drill. This is not a drill. Duck and cover.' And all I could think about were my children. My son was sleeping when I left. I didn't kiss him good-bye, and I just was praying that I would make it out OK. And thankfully, seven minutes later we found out that one of the local guards tripped a perimeter alarm, and that caused the alarm to go off."

If a country gets too dangerous or if a natural disaster strikes, the State Department sends families and non-essential personnel back to Washington. The order to evacuate often comes with little warning. Families may get few hours to pack and gather important documents, like school records, before leaving their homes.

Evacuations last an average of four months. In 2004, there were 10 evacuations. Most evacuees choose the live in the Washington, D.C., area so that they can continue to work at the department headquarters. They must find temporary housing, and their children have to attend new schools, often joining classes mid-year. Many people have to buy all new clothes and other essentials, like dishes, during their time in the States.

More and more, diplomats are assigned to serve in countries that are too dangerous for their families. There are about 700 of these unaccompanied positions, in places such as Kabul and Bujumbura, Burundi. There is also a growing number of hardship posts. Under the transformational diplomacy initiative, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is redeploying diplomats from posts in Europe to political hot spots, like Nigeria and Lebanon.

Experts expect this trend to continue.

"Employees today come into the service knowing that they will almost certainly have to serve in those kinds of places at least once if not many times during their career," says Steve Kashkett, the vice president of the American Foreign Service Association. "And this is now a requirement for promotion and for eventual competition for the senior service."

To fill positions at these posts, the State Department offers a range of incentive packages that include danger pay as well as regular trips back to the United States. But some days those benefits don't compensate for the stress.

Maya Dietz is vice consul at the embassy in Iraq, and never leaves Baghdad's protected Green Zone.

"There have been occasions where mortars have gone off quite close to our building, and from my desk I have a window that I can physically see the glass bend in," she says.

"And our safe haven room is where we go when things get quite serious. There are three walls underground, and the walls are quite thick. We've had occasions when we are sitting in that room, and even those walls will shake."

Despite the dangers, the State Department isn't having any trouble finding new recruits. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, applications to the Foreign Service are up. This year, 17,000 people took the written exam. The department estimates it will accept only 340 new officers this fall.

NPR's Megan Meline is a Foreign Service spouse whose husband has served in Dar es Salaam and Manila. This story was produced by Elaine Heinzman.

A Day in the Life: An American Diplomat in Kabul

A Marine stands guard in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2001.

A Marine stands guard in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2001. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Following is an essay from Ann Wright, the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. She also served in senior posts at the embassies in Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia.

4:30 a.m. My workday begins at U.S. Embassy Kabul. The 100-person Marine detachment is changing shifts, communications officers are pulling the cable traffic from Washington, mullahs are calling Afghans to morning prayer, and first light is peeking over snow-capped mountains surrounding Kabul valley. Colorfully painted trucks, men in warm shawls on bicycles, boys pulling carts filled with everything from freshly slaughtered sheep to window glass are passing by the embassy.

8 a.m. Three Marines march to the flagpole and raise the American flag. No matter how many mornings I see this ceremony in Kabul — ground zero for U.S. assistance to the Afghan people and potentially ground zero for al-Qaida retaliation for the war on terrorism — the daily raising and lowering of the flag are moving. I came in with the first diplomats in December 2001, and I've been here on and off since then. One hundred miles south of here, the largest coalition military action in Afghanistan, Operation Anaconda, rages as coalition and Afghan forces pound a large concentration of al-Qaida fighters.

8:30 a.m. The U.S. country team meets to coordinate U.S. government activities (except for military operations) in Afghanistan. Chargé d'Affaires Ryan Crocker chairs the meeting. Humanitarian and developmental projects for Afghanistan are the focus of today's meeting. Military, U.S. Agency for International Development, and administrative section representatives quickly agree on a plan of action for two infrastructure projects in Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. Embassy political officers update us on regional political happenings. The defense attaché comments on local militia factions.

9:30 a.m. I'm off to a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go over a proposed schedule for an upcoming congressional delegation (CODEL) visit. We recently had CODELs on three consecutive days, and then on the fourth day Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived. The Afghan interim administration's tiny protocol office coordinates meetings with key Afghan officials for our delegations. With an ever-increasing number of diplomatic and international organization missions in Kabul, the protocol office must assist more and more official visitors. The protocol officers work nonstop, with few functional telephones, computers or fax machines to use.

We provide a proposed schedule of events and meetings, understanding that we will probably not get a response from the protocol office until the morning of the visit.

Congressional staffers will anxiously call numerous times to confirm the schedule, and we will reassure them that somehow the appointments will work out and the visit will be successful, but we can't say quite how — yet. This is Afghanistan, and things work in their own mysterious manner.

10:30 a.m. Back at the embassy, we learn that the long-awaited support flight will arrive on the same day as the congressional delegation. No point in trying to change the date; we desperately need the office equipment and construction materials on the flight. The contracted Antonov aircraft is huge and carries an incredible amount of equipment. Many trucks, our entire local staff, plus additional hired laborers will be needed to offload the equipment and transport it to the embassy. Wait, new information. We hear from the administrative officer that Washington is now sending two Antonovs. It seems impossible to handle both flights in one day, but fortunately, Kabul International Airport is open. The six bomb craters on the runway have been repaired, which saves us the 90-minute drive north to Bagram Air Base, a trip we had to make almost daily for the first 60 days we were here. Unloading two planes in one day will stretch our staff to the limit, but we need the equipment, so we'll manage somehow.

11 a.m. The building begins to tremble. Another earthquake. This is the third earthquake since we returned to Embassy Kabul. We stay put until the building settles down, then run outside to count heads and determine if there are any injuries. None reported. Next we survey the damage to the chancery. Several sandbags have fallen from the Marine lookouts on top of the embassy and one wall in a basement room has collapsed. The 35-year-old building is strong. The people in the Afghan villages to the north were not so lucky; reports come in during the afternoon of many deaths and thousands of houses demolished. For the next several days, USAID and the U.S. military will help the Afghan government and international organizations assess the damage and determine how the U.S. can help. We call the State Department Operations Center to let them know that we came through okay. They tell us the U.S. Geological Survey is reporting a 5.8-level earthquake with an epicenter about 100 miles northeast of Kabul.

12:30 p.m. Time for a quick lunch. We have no cooking facilities at the chancery, so a local Afghan restaurant prepares lunch for us daily. Mutton kebabs with rice, chicken with rice, dumplings with rice, and rice with rice are our daily fare. The meal is served from the embassy's bunker, which was built five years ago to provide protection for the Afghan staff during rocket attacks. It now houses the only flush-toilet and working shower on the embassy compound. Today, due to the earthquake, we don't tarry long in the bunker and take our lunches outside to eat at picnic tables.

12:45 p.m. Yells come from the bunker. The drain in our one bathroom has smelly, vile ooze coming from it. One of the local staff casually comments that perhaps it's time to pump out the septic tank. The 100 Marines and 20 Foreign Service staff who share the toilet agree. Replumbing the chancery building is the highest priority for our maintenance team. Old pipes that have not been used for 12 years are proving hard to repair. Our heroes are the plumbers who deal daily with back-ups and blowouts of the most unimaginable mess!

2:30 p.m. We visit the United Nations mission to check on the status of delivery of office equipment, furniture and vehicles to the new government. The Taliban took everything they could transport, including the cash in the national treasury vault. When we leave the embassy, we do so in an armored car protected by the diplomatic security mobile security team. We pass through a meat market with sheep hanging from hooks and through a bicycle market where parts and tires are tacked to tree trucks and poles. We see big trucks bringing goods from Pakistan. Commercial life is returning to Kabul.

5 p.m. It's getting cold as the sun falls quickly. We return to the compound just in time for flag retreat. Then we head to the bunker for a bowl of hot vegetable soup from a huge caldron perched on a small stove in the narrow hallway. Soup and nan (flat bread) seem to satisfy most everyone at night. No one is gaining weight here, but no one complains of being hungry, either.

6:30 p.m. Washington is now awake, so it is time to call to report on the day's activities and write up reports on the earthquake and a proposed U.S. response. Some try to watch a little television, but we are still waiting for the satellite TV chip that will let us receive CNN and BBC via our satellite dish made from pounded soda cans. Until then, those who understand Arabic and Polish translate for the rest of us. Many read and chat with newfound friends for a while before heading off to sleep.

10:30 p.m. There's a flash-bang as a trip-wire on the compound wall explodes. We know to stay put until the Marine "react" team deploys to determine what triggered the explosion. Thirty minutes later they tell us another cat has snuck through the concertina wire and tripped the flash-bang. The cat was last seen high-tailing it across the compound.

11 p.m. Time to try to get back to sleep (hoping for no more earthquakes or flashbangs tonight) and get ready for another busy day in Kabul.

Excerpted from Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America, edited by Shawn Dorman, published by the American Foreign Service Association.

A Day in the Life: An American Diplomat in Thailand

Ted Osius gives an elephant a grateful pat.

Ted Osius gives an elephant a grateful pat for carrying him into the forest in Myanmar's Bago Yoma Mountains, north of Rangoon. Courtesy Ted Osius hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Ted Osius

Read about a typical day for Ted Osius, regional environmental affairs officer for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Region at the American embassy in Bangkok, Thailand.

8 a.m. As car engines idle outside Ambassador Darryl Johnson's residence, his wife emerges, wearing a broad straw hat. "We're going to the jungle," Kathleen Johnson says, beaming.

10 a.m. We are at the Khao Yai National Park Visitors' Center. I am biting my nails. Our well-rehearsed program should have started, but the media aren't here yet. Dozens of Royal Forest Department officials, forest rangers and non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives mill about, waiting for the program to begin. I am relieved to see that the ambassador and his wife, drinking coffee with our host, the top Forest Department officer, don't seem bothered by the delay.

10:30 a.m. Finally, an enormous double-decker bus pulls up. Four journalists climb out. Twenty were scheduled to come, but Bangkok is awash in rumors that today Burma's military junta will announce Aung San Suu Kyi's release. Five television stations and most print journalists have canceled our event to focus on the Nobel Prize winner in Rangoon. Two conservationists stop squabbling long enough to ask me who should speak first. Are my careful plans coming unglued?

12 p.m. We're back on track. Forty uniformed forest rangers demonstrate training drills: how to subdue a poacher, assist an injured comrade. Our Royal Forest Department host glows with pride. A controversial figure who frequently makes headlines in the local press, he designed the uniforms himself and brought discipline to a rag-tag crew of rangers. Three firefighters whiz down a rope from a hovering helicopter. Their team of 60 waves shovels, squirts at an imaginary fire, and sings in unison. One NGO trainer who frequents the park whispers, "I've never seen these people in the park before. Those shovels are newly painted. I don't think they've ever been used."

1:30 p.m. The ambassador announces grants to the Forest Department for environmental law enforcement. I wrote proposals four months ago, which Washington formally approved just days before this event. Sixteen embassies vied for funds, and we were awarded two-thirds of the grant money. I will make this program work if it kills me. Standing before a newly planted tree, the ambassador takes questions. Predictably, journalists ask about a debt-for-nature agreement scrapped by the Thai government. It's rubbing salt in a wound: I spent my first five months at post negotiating this deal, and groundless fears of biopiracy brought it down. The ambassador is a pro, fielding each question smoothly, yet I can't help imagining how sweet it would have been to sign that $9 million agreement here, surrounded by the trees we're trying to save.

3 p.m. It's raining heavily. Guards toting sawed-off HK-34s accompany us on our "quiet" hike through the forest. Our group of 40 probably won't be spotting any wildlife on this visit. Leeches crawl on my shoes. Still, the trees are majestic. Hundred-foot trunks loom like pillars in a cathedral. Roots are tangled into ghostly shapes. Thirty feet up, a ranger spots a hornbill nest. Jungle fowl cry out, and I can smell the bark of aloewood, pungent and exotic.

4:30 p.m. I'm no longer annoyed at the conservationist who has been delivering an endless brief on wildlife protection as we trek through the jungle. After all, the ambassador has remained polite, unflagging, interested in each aspect of the program. We're treated to a rare sighting of Asian wild dogs stalking a small herd of deer. These dogs are fierce: a pack will chase a tiger off its kill.

5 p.m. The ambassador jokes in fluent Thai with kids at a youth conservation camp. He tosses out a soccer ball, stamped with the embassy seal. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he won't allow bad weather or scheduling delays to dampen his good cheer.

7 p.m. We dine on steak and fresh fruit under the stars, while a band plays "As Time Goes By." The lead singer wears camouflage pants: he is a ranger from the morning's demonstration. We're on the lawn of a house built 40 years ago by a Thai prime minister, General Sarit. Our host declares his preference for military governments, since they're "more efficient."

10:30 p.m. Our truck swerves to avoid a seven-foot python on the road. It slithers into the underbrush. We've seen deer, fisher cats and a few civets — weasel-shaped mammals with ringed tails — on our "night safari." A herd of nine elephants emerges from the dark to eat and frolic 20 paces from the road. "I never expected I'd live to see wild Asian elephants in the forest," Mrs. Johnson muses. All in all, a pretty good day in Thailand.

Excerpted from Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America, edited by Shawn Dorman, published by the American Foreign Service Association.

One Thing at a Time

Francesca Kelly

About the Author

Francesca Huemer Kelly is a freelance writer and the founding editor of Tales from a Small Planet, an online non-profit magazine for members of the American expat and Foreign Service communities. She has been a Foreign Service spouse for 21 years, has four children, and has lived in New York, Milan, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Belgrade, Vienna, Washington, Ankara, Rome and Brussels.

How quickly one forgets. We're less than a week at our new overseas posting, and it's all coming back to me now: how it is that first week in a completely new country, city, job, language, life. I'd forgotten that no matter how fascinating a place you're in, it's always rough going at first.

I'd lowered my expectations considerably before arriving, knowing from seven other overseas postings (and another in my own country) that high expectations can be one's downfall. So as excited as I was, I'd also given myself a good talking to, and reminded myself about the traffic, the bureaucracy, the transportation hassles, the jet lag, the temporary apartment and the living out of suitcases. I figured, OK, if I keep my expectations low, there won't be any culture shock.

But what I hadn't prepared for was my attitude towards myself — the fact that I expected more from myself as a veteran of so many moves. If I were stuck in an African backwater or a former Soviet republic, I'd feel justified in some initial feelings of being overwhelmed and a bit lost.

But I'm in Rome, our dream post. The place we've always wanted to live.

Believe it or not, sometimes the glamour posts are the hardest to adjust to initially. Please don't scoff: I'm not complaining about being in Rome. But therein lies the problem: no matter what happens, I feel as if I simply can't complain about being in Rome. No one will take me seriously, least of all myself.

OK, so Rome is wonderful — I know that, and you know that. There's incredible pasta and fabulous ice cream and to-die-for coffee. Every church has a concert series; every garden has fountains and statues. One park near us, right in the center of the city, has a pond with dozens of turtles sunning themselves among the lily pads. Every time I take a walk, each turn yields new delights in this amazing place. Believe me, we are enjoying those things immensely, and we keep pinching ourselves to see when we're going to wake up.

And yet — I'm also trying to wake up from jet lag. Our temporary apartment had a huge leak and the bedroom carpet is soaked and mildewed, triggering allergies among the children. Every day I seem to do nothing but schlep things here, schlep things there: milk, boxes I'd mailed to myself, house wares and cleaning supplies, and still, there's always some essential we forgot to buy or just can't find. I've learned that some buses come early, some late and some not at all. When the latter occurs, I've had a devil of a time trying to find a taxi. I've dragged my children all over town, looking at maps and figuring out where to buy tickets. Depending on my mood (and my moods are quite changeable these days), it's either a terrific new adventure or it's a giant hassle.

In short, I'm starting all over again, just when I'd gotten the routine down in the last place. Every city, every country has its rhythm, and I've yet to mesh my own rhythm with Rome's. That doesn't have much to do with Rome, but a lot more to do with my place here, or lack thereof. I could be in Baku or Lagos and the reaction would likely be the same: I just don't belong here yet. I'm some strange thing out of context. I have not yet adapted.

Yes, it'll come. But how do I make it come faster?

Ironically, perhaps the most important way to help myself and my family through this time is not to rush things. Adjustment comes at its own speed; I can't make it arrive more quickly by forcing it. So I'm trying not to expect so much of myself — or my family. In fact, our daily reminder to ourselves is: slow down and do one thing at a time.

For this typical American, that's not an easy thing to do, but it's a necessary one. My tendency at normal times is to fill up the calendar, and I know I'm not alone. Most people these days schedule every hour of every day, whether it's with meetings, lunch dates, play dates, volunteer groups or running errands.

But when you're in a new country, it takes all your energy and time to do just one thing. One seemingly simple job such as finding a broom, or getting a document, can often turn into a half-day procedure when you don't know the ropes and barely know the language.

Not only that, but do I really want to spend every day doing just necessary things? We also need time for discovery and delight. A frustrating few hours trying to gather school supplies for the kids yielded a part of town where artists' galleries and craftsmen's shops abound. A walk in search of milk turned up not only milk, but also a Romanesque courtyard surrounding a fountain of spouting bronze frogs.

I'm learning, once again, that in the Strange Time of the Newly Arrived — an intense time in both good and bad ways — I simply need to go at a slower pace. So my calendar has one thing on it each day, and one thing only. And that's OK, even kind of wonderful, and liberating.

In fact, the Italians have a phrase for it: piano a piano. Step by step. One thing at a time.

Excerpted from Realities of Foreign Service Life, edited by Patricia Linderman and Melissa Brayer-Hess, published by the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide.

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