"We have to tell these stories," State secretary says of woman who got back to work after her nose was blown off.
On Aug. 7, 1998, Lizzie Slater was on her second day at a new State Department job in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when the building exploded.
The first thing she remembers hearing when she came to, buried under a pile of rubble, was, “She’s alive.” She thought her legs had been blown off, but realized they were merely temporarily paralyzed. Slater and some of her new colleagues eventually made their way outside and learned they had been victims of a coordinated terrorist attack on the U.S. embassies in both Tanzania and Kenya.
Slater quickly realized something was off, as people passing by muttered “oh no” after looking at her. She was eventually pulled aside for ad hoc surgery from a doctor at the French embassy, who had arrived on scene to assist victims and removed pieces of glass from her body. She had other issues, such as her nose being “ripped off” of her face.
Immediately upon completing the procedures, Slater got back to work. She found her team at a temporary embassy site and began restoring emergency communications. She and a colleague even climbed a tree to ensure communication equipment providing a link back to Washington had a clear signal.
For those efforts, and for continuing her work to make the temporary embassy operational over the ensuing weeks until she was eventually medevaced out of the country to address her gangrenous leg and a severe eye infection, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo honored Slater at a ceremony at the department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, bestowing her with the first Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy designation. The program will run through 2020 and highlight employees who have “displayed sound policy judgment, as well as intellectual, moral and/or physical courage while advancing the Department of State’s mission, thereby elevating U.S. diplomacy.”
Upon taking office, Pompeo promised to “bring the swagger back” at State, a department that has been severely hobbled by an exodus in its top ranks, vacancies in political positions, a shrinking career workforce following an extended hiring freeze and generally low morale. While the new recognition spurred out of meetings from an array of offices throughout State, Pompeo was on hand on Friday to advocate that the department do a better job of promoting itself.
“Coming from a military background, I’m accustomed to hearing my fellow soldiers referred to as heroes, and rightfully so,” Pompeo said. “But at the State Department, we’re hesitant, often, to lay claim to that term. But as I’ve traveled to several dozen posts all around the world, it’s become clear we have to move past that reticence. We have to tell these stories.”
Slater also said the program could help revitalize the department and portray “a new image of what an American diplomat looks like.”
“I think it’s timely,” she said in an interview after the ceremony. “I think it’s necessary as well, because we are in a slump. But what I think it’s going to do is show America is that it’s not just all cocktail parties and living the life, essentially. That it’s real, that we are in dangerous situations. That we do really great work overseas, necessary for the security of the United States.”
State has not determined how many hero designations it will give out, but is accepting nominations on a rolling basis. It is also working with its historic office to identify and honor heroes of the past. Ultimately, the department wants to recognize different roles in various jobs, including the civil service, Foreign Service and locally employed staff.
‘How Can I Tell My Family I’m Alive’
Slater was serving in her first post as an IT specialist in the Foreign Service when the terrorist attack hit in Tanzania. She had previously worked in the department as an office management specialist, and before that as an eligible family member.
Her husband, Charlie, also worked in the Foreign Service. At the time of the incident in Tanzania, he was stationed at the embassy in Nairobi, Kenya—the site of the other bombing.
“The main concern of everybody was, ‘How can I tell my family I’m alive? How can I get that word out?’” Slater said, recalling the first moments after the bombing when employees gathered at the chargé’s residence.
Just one official—the in-country Peace Corps director—had a cell phone at that time, and they all took turns using it. She called the only number she could remember, which happened to be a friend back in the United States.
Days later, after communications had been largely restored, another friend called who had seen her on TV. He was a doctor and saw what happened to her nose.
“This is what I want you to do,” he said. “I want you to go get some Play-Doh and I want you to put it on your nose and keep it on your nose. Make sure you keep all that skin smooth, so when I can get to work on you, half the work will be done for me.”
For six months, she continuously kept red Play-Doh on her face. Her colleagues took to calling her Rudolph. Her nose has recovered completely.
During that period, Slater received a “compassionate curtailment” and was transferred to Nairobi to be with her husband.
“We had set up all operations in the public affairs office, our new embassy [in Tanzania],” Slater said. “Then I went to go do the same in Nairobi.”
‘All These Little Lizzies’
Slater’s leg and nose have healed, but her eyesight and hearing have never fully recovered. She has continued to serve as an IT specialist ever since, climbing to the ranks of Senior Foreign Service. She is newly arrived in Washington after stints in Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt, about to start a new chapter.
In her new role, Slater will serve as dean of the Foreign Service Institute for applied IT.
Her challenge now, she said, is not just to train IT staff, but to empower Foreign Service officers—the “non-techies”—to use the new tools State has at its disposal.
“Just imagine, I get to shape those minds,” she said. “All these little Lizzies will be coming out.”