Dangerous Postings: Life in the Foreign Service 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.
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Dangerous Postings: Life in the Foreign Service

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Dangerous Postings: Life in the Foreign Service

Dangerous Postings: Life in the Foreign Service

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Don Gonyea.

Today and tomorrow we're going to look at the U.S. foreign service. In a moment, we'll hear from a public affairs officer at the American Embassy in Beirut, about life in the Lebanese capital since fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah.

MONTAGNE: First, there are close to 8,000 American diplomats and foreign service officers working worldwide. They're assigned to places like Bangkok, Kabul, Karachi, and Jakarta, all battlefronts in the War on Terror, and they must cope with security threats everyday. Megan Meline has the first of two reports on life in the U.S. foreign service.

(Soundbite of training video)

Unidentified Woman: We went down 21 flights of stairs. At each landing the steel doors between the stairwells and the portals, the hallways had been blown in. There was blood everywhere…

MEGAN MELINE reporting:

That's the sound of a training video, not for soldiers deploying to Iraq, but for diplomats. It's a far cry from bygone days when the Foreign Service wasn't such a risky career. Phyllis Oakley remembers when she and her husband Robert lived in the Sudan. It was his first diplomatic posting, and the year was 1958.

Ms. PHYLLIS OAKLEY (Former Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research): The cook and I shared a bicycle, and we didn't have a car yet. And 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 or whatnot.

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

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

MELINE: Serious threats against Americans started about 10 years ago. Robert Oakley is the former Ambassador to Somalia, Zaire, and Pakistan.

Mr. ROBERT OAKLEY (Former U.S. Ambassador to Somalia, Zaire, and Pakistan): It's not the first time we've had a wave of anti-Americanism. I think it's probably more profound right now, and 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. We have two big problems. We have not only the Arab-Israeli problem, we do have the situation in Iraq as well. So we have a double whammy, if you will.

MELINE: 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 Yusin(ph) is a counselor officer at the Embassy in Amman, Jordan. She recalls one scare.

Ms. ERIN YUSIN (Counselor Officer, American Embassy in Amman, Jordan): The marine got on the loudspeaker 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 goodbye, and I just was praying that I was going to make it out okay. 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.

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

One officer recalls her family's department from Islamabad.

Unidentified Woman: My kids had thrown everything that they could possibly think of that they didn't need into their suitcases. My 15-year-old brought about ten pairs of shoes and no clothes. My boys brought their Nintendo and their games and no clothes. And not thinking for myself, I packed five changes of clothes. I thought we were going to be here no more than 30 days…

MELINE: 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 like Kabul and Bujumbura.

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 hotspots, like Nigeria and Lebanon. Experts expect this trend to continue.

Steve Kashkett is the Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association.

Mr. STEVE KASHKETT (Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association): Employees today come in to 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. And this is now a requirement for promotion and for eventual competition for the senior service.

MELINE: 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 Dades(ph) is vice counsel at the Embassy in Iraq, and never leaves the protected Green Zone.

Ms. MAYA DADES (Vice Counsel, American Embassy in Iraq): There have been occasions where mortars have gone off quite close to our building. And from my desk, I have a window that, you know, I could physically see the glass bend in. And our safe haven room - which is where you go when things get quite serious -these three walls are underground, and the walls are quite thick. And, you know, we've had occasions where we're sitting in that room, and even those walls will shake.

MELINE: Despite the dangers, the State Department isn't having any trouble finding new recruits. Since 9/11, applications to the foreign service are up. This year, 17,000 people took the written exam, and the State Department estimates it will accept only 340 new officers this fall.

For NPR News, this is Megan Meline.

MONTAGNE: Read A Day in the Life of American Diplomats in Kabul and Bangkok. Just go to npr.org.

Tomorrow, how foreign service life affects families and marriages.

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