Foreign Service Veterans Seek to Dispel the Myths

The challenges of overseas living described at union event.

Veteran diplomats who have braved war zones, terrorism, bureaucracy and personal family crises appeared on Capitol Hill Friday to offer personal insight into the nature and value of life in the U.S. Foreign Service.

The purpose of the event, said Susan Johnson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association who has served in Cuba, Bosnia and Iraq, was to “dispel the idea that we’re an elitist group of people from seven or eight universities” and show that we’ve achieving the diversity required by the 1980 Foreign Service Act. “Contrary to popular notion, most of us haven’t served in Western Europe and don’t want to,” she added, dismissing the image of diplomacy as a luxurious life of “pushing cookies.”

Diplomacy “has changed a lot since 9/11,” Johnson told an audience in the House Budget Committee hearing room. “This new environment in which American diplomacy takes place in new security surroundings means there are a lot more challenges in getting out and about to the build relationships” that lead to the discourse and dialogue needed before the United States resorts to force, she said.

The six panelists, mostly AFSA board members, described their careers and accomplishments while pointing out that most had rotated on and off Capitol Hill or to the private sector or to global nongovernmental organizations, and that some grew up overseas as children of the Foreign Service. “It’s in our DNA,” as one put it.

“In our daily lives people forget how dependent we are on events around the world,” said Ambassador Charles Ray, a Vietnam War veteran who returned to that country as a diplomat in the 1990s. “We’re better prepared to deal with it if you recognize it, and the Foreign Service is the tip of the spear for understanding it.”

Ray, who also served in China, Sierra Leone and Thailand, ended up meeting and drinking tea regularly with the Vietnamese commander who had commanded the 1968 attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon. When the U.S. demolished that embassy on its own in 1998, Ray said, “I said I achieved what he had failed to do.”

Kenneth Kero-Mentz, a State Department economic issues specialist who also represents the interests of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, described his harrowing experiences in Brazil and war-torn Iraq. In Rio de Janeiro, “crime was through the roof and I got carjacked twice,” he said, adding that police allowed foreigners to speed through traffic lights in high-crime areas.

“Baghdad was the wild west, with no rules,” Kero-Mentz said. Placed in charge of helping rebuild the Iraqi national assembly building in just six months, he was given a helmet, a flak jacket and a white Honda (American cars draw too much attention), along with a pistol “to use on myself if I got captured.”

After a later posting to Berlin, Kero-Mentz met a German man who became his husband. He praised former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for awarding travel benefits to same-sex partners of diplomats, but cited a need for further changes in areas of health insurance and his husband’s eligibility to remain in the United States.

Steve Morrison, a member of the Foreign Commercial Service who has served in Mexico, Spain and France, described a parenting crisis he went through while stationed in Madrid working on a major deal with General Dynamics and new trade rules under consideration at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD. Having been thrilled at first to enroll his son in a school at which he could learn three languages, he changed his attitude when the boy developed fever-related conditions and learning difficulties that are less recognized in European schools than in the United States, he said. “Thank God for the State Department’s special needs allowances and my colleagues in State’s back office,” Morrison said. “Without them I couldn’t have stayed on the job helping Americans.”

Elise Mellinger, a State Department cultural anthropologist who speaks five languages, described the challenges of serving in the hardship post of Mumbai, India, with its pollution, crowding, poverty and terrorism. “I learned to interview visa applicants for five minutes and determine that they’re not a terrorist and won’t overstay,” she said. Mellinger repatriated a schizophrenic American artist who was off medication, but she also contracted parasitic diseases eight times in two years. “I lost friends” in the 2008 Mumbai hotel bombing, she said. “It’s a threat we knowingly take on, but it’s still an awful reality when you experience it.”

Jason Singer, representing the U.S. Agency for International Development, for which “every post is a hardship post,” recounted his family’s experience living in Indonesia when his wife gave birth, traveling first to Singapore where the medical care was considered superior.

With all the different agencies working within an embassy, “we may disagree on an issue, but we hammer it out,” he said. “We may have difficulties but will end up in the same four restaurants in Kinshasa, and the collegiality is attractive.”

Singer said the work must go on, even amid a budget crisis. “Despite the fiscal environment, the Foreign Service continues to do great things,” he said. “President Obama has asked us to end poverty in two decades. We’re still involved in great initiatives.”

Johnson noted that the Foreign Service “is a small outfit,” numbering some 13,000, compared with 10,000 in 1970. But many of those additions are in security and information technology staff, not diplomats, while the number of nations and agencies within embassies has vastly grown, Johnson said. “We think we’re a great investment for the taxpayer.”