Tag Archives: Foreign Service

I Worked for the State Department—Get It? Not the CIA. Or the NSA.

My hair stylist has just finished my monthly cut and turns to a man I haven’t met before, who’s sauntered into the shop. It’s a friend of hers. She introduces us and mentions that I write books and used to work for the State Department overseas.

The man, who seems truly interested, says, “Oh, the State Department. You were a spy?”

It’s not the first time someone has assumed that.

“Hardly,” I explain. “I was a lowly consular officer.” No one knows what that is, of course, so I offer my stripped down explanation. “I helped Americans overseas. Visited Americans in jail and hospitals and that sort of thing.”

I also have a grand collection of war stories about what it’s like to interview foreigners who want to come to the States—some legally, some illegally. Or what it’s like to be in Saudi Arabia during a war (twice). But I don’t want to bore people.

A column by Josh Shrager explains realistically what serving as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) is like. Josh is a public affairs officer, one of several functions, of which consular is only one.

The Foreign Service life isn’t for everyone, but like a lot of FSO’s, I wouldn’t have traded my experiences for any other career. Although I do like to write novels.

Benghazi, Libya, June 1967: U.S. Mission Attacked and Burned


The following is from a recounting  by John Kormann, officer-in-charge at Embassy Benghazi during the 1967 attack.

“The most harrowing experience of my Foreign Service career occurred in Benghazi at the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Convinced by propaganda broadcasts that U.S. Navy planes were attacking Cairo, Libyan mobs . . . attacked the Embassy. . . . A detachment of soldiers provided by the Libyan Government to protect us was overwhelmed. The embassy file room was full of highly classified material, which we desperately tried to burn. . . . The mob finally battered its way in. They pushed themselves in through broken windows and came at us cut and bleeding.

“We were well armed, but I gave orders that there be no shooting, so we met them with axe handles and rifle butts. Dropping [t]ear gas grenades, we fought our way up the stairs and locked ourselves in the second floor communications vault. We were able to continue burning files in 50-gallon drums on an inner courtyard balcony . . . The mobs set fire to the building. The heat, smoke and tear gas were intense, which while terrible for us, blessedly forced the mob from the building. We only had five gas masks for 10 people and shared them while we worked. . . .”

[The embassy staff was able to extinguish some of the fires after the attackers were forced out by the flames.]

“At one point the mob used a ladder to drop from an adjoining building on to our roof, catching us trying to burn files. . . They cut the ropes on the tall roof flag pole, leaving the flag itself hanging down the front of the building.”

[An Army Military Assistance captain braved rocks from below and managed to raise the flag.]

“The reaction among my people was profound. I could see it in their eyes, as they worked on with grim determination under those conditions to burn files . . .

“I took a photograph of President and Mrs. Johnson off the wall, broke it out of the frame and wrote a message on the back to the President saying . . . that we have tried our best to do our duty. Everyone signed it.”

This attack ended more happily than the attack of September, 2012 in Benghazi. After several unsuccessful attempts, British troops were finally able to reach the site and take the Americans to a British base on the outskirts of town.

New Ambassador To Libya


Deborah Jones is the new United States ambassador to Libya. She steps into the spot vacant since the former ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed in that country by terrorists.

Ms. Jones, sworn in by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, closed her swearing in ceremony with these words:

“Our tragedies reveal our strengths. If I were to ask those in this audience who have lost a Foreign Service friend or colleague, officer, TDY, Civil Service employee, or FSN-LES staff to an act of violence to raise your hands, I suspect many hands would go up. And I am also certain the same people would raise those same hands to volunteer for duty again, just as Chris, Sean, Anne, my mentor, Arnie Raphel, and so many others have done.

“So I hope you will join me in a virtual toast to these individuals. To Chris, to Sean, Ty, Glen, Anne, Arnie and to all those dear friends, colleagues, mentors, and family members who serve, because that’s who we are and that’s what we do. ”


How Many American Bodies?


How many American bodies had he sent home in the course of his career? Neal Hudson had not kept count, but he figured it must be close to fifty.

Dept of StateSo begins my novel, Distant Thunder, the story of Neal Hudson, a U.S. Foreign Service professional. Distant Thunder, like several of my books, deals with a Foreign Service officer, the official name for a U.S. diplomat. Most Americans have no idea our government has a Foreign Service. Thus, I often create a scene in my novels in which the officer has to explain what he or she does.

On rare visits to the States, strangers he’d meet in a hotel or a car rental would ask what he did for a living. He’d fumble around trying to explain. “I’m a consular officer.”

Raised eyebrows. “Oh?”

“A Foreign Service officer.”

“In the military, you mean?”

No, Neal says, and explains about overseas Americans and how Foreign Service officers notify loved ones when an American citizen dies overseas. They see that bodies are sent home. They visit imprisoned Americans and American children living with non-American parents. They perform more mundane tasks, acting as a notary in foreign countries and renewing passports.

Neal serves as a consular officer. Other specialities include political, economic, administrative, and security, to name a few.

Like professionals everywhere—firefighters, police officers, the military, nurses—Foreign Service officers are proud of their service and can never fully explain it to the uninitiated. The interweaving of tragedy, comedy, and an occasional happy ending with a touch of the exotic provides infinite plots for story telling.

State Department Honors Its Own, Killed While Serving in a Year of Tragic Losses


The C Street entrance to the U.S. State Department is the one with the flags—the flags of those nations with whom the United States has diplomatic relations. It’s the place you see on television when news reporters cover stories about U.S. diplomatic response to foreign crises and conflicts, usually with the flags in the background.

What is not usually shown are the rows of names engraved on the walls of the C Street lobby. These are the names of U.S. State Department personnel who have died in the line of duty: 236 since 1780.  Each year on Foreign Service Day, the names of those recently recognized for giving their lives in service to their country are added to the rows. This year has been a year of especially tragic loss. Eight names will be added on May 3.

Four were killed in the terrorist attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya. Another was a young woman killed by an explosion in Afghanistan while she was traveling to visit a school and deliver books.

The majority of the State Department’s Foreign Service personnel will not be attending. They will be serving their country as usual in places far removed from the C Street lobby: London, U.K; Moscow, Russia; conflict-ridden Kabul in Afghanistan and Baghdad in Iraq; Sana’a, Yemen; Islamabad, Pakistan; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; genocide-haunted Kigali, Rwanda; and 200 plus other U.S. missions around the world.

Murdered, A Foreigner Working for the United States


Qassim Aklan, local employee of the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, was recently murdered. Aklan, an employee of the embassy for eleven years, aided his American colleagues in investigations that the embassy carried out.

About 53,000 local employees help staff U.S. embassies and consulates  abroad. The mere fact that they work for the United States sometimes puts them in danger. Over the years, hundreds have been killed because of their employment.

Every American who has worked in a U.S. embassy or consulate and earned any accolades knows how much of the praise is due to the local staff who made their work possible. I especially remember the three Foreign Service Nationals (as we called them then) who shepherded me through my exhausting first tour. No way could I have survived that tour without them.

Perhaps in tribute, two of my novels feature locally hired staff who work in U.S. embassies where the American protagonists are assigned. Lavali, Farid, and Ramelon are the fictitious national employees from A Sense of Mission. They support newbie U.S. Foreign Service Officer Kaitlin Sadler. She depends on the trio as she struggles to master the interviews of a never ending line of applicants for U.S. visas, endures a Middle Eastern war, and falls in love.

Hatem Lakhdar, at another Middle Eastern embassy, provides Patrick Holtzman, ambitious U.S. political officer in Searching for Home, with the names of valuable contacts. One contact becomes a special friend. Later Hatem offers sympathy to Patrick when the contact is murdered.

The American officers come and go when their tours end. When posts become too dangerous, they are evacuated. The Foreign Service Nationals remain, sometimes with tragic consequences.


Brouhaha Over Benghazi


The investigation over security in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three others were tragically killed, continues within election year furor. As James Risen has written in The New York Times, however, the security of U.S. embassies and diplomats today is complex.

During the Arabian/Persian Gulf war in 1991, I began my first tour with the State Department at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Once the war was over, my colleagues and I enjoyed weekend trips to ancient ruins, group runs in the desert outside Jeddah, and evenings out in the city’s restaurants. In 2004, long after my assignment ended, al-Qaeda forces attacked the consulate and killed four employees and four of the consulate’s guard force.

When I served in Algiers in 1993, I probably acted foolishly in walking to a church on the weekend down narrow streets of the city. Hints of the extremist insurgency against the Algerian government surfaced, but we hadn’t yet been forbidden to walk around, and I wanted exercise. Besides, as a diplomat, I was supposed to know the people and country where I served. A few months later, as the insurgency increased, all but essential staff were evacuated back to the U.S.

In Tunisia in the late 1990’s, the U.S. embassy where I was posted occupied an old building near the center of town. The location was ideal for a quick lunch in one of the local restaurants. I often walked to work or rode the bus. Sometimes on weekends I parked my car at the embassy, then finished the journey by foot to a church in the old souk. I passed both a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque on the way. (Jews have been in Tunisia since ancient times.)

Today, the U.S. embassy has been moved to a suburban location. Mobs recently attacked and damaged it, but did not gain entry. They destroyed the American school next door.

In short, security for overseas U.S. missions is more demanding and expensive today. Congress has not always been forthcoming with money for security programs.  Diplomats also chafe, as Risen pointed out in his article, at being stuck in buildings when they want to meet ordinary people outside.

Such complex sea changes had best be dealt with away from election hyperbole. All of us knew, even in the years I served, that security and diplomacy may contradict each other. We never supposed that all danger could be avoided.


Diplomacy by Tweets


During recent attacks by mobs on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, the American staff passed warnings to American citizens in Egypt through the embassy’s Twitter network. American embassies lead the diplomatic world in their use of Twitter, Facebook and other digital tools.

Contrast this communication system with the one used during the first conflict in the Arabian peninsula against Saddam Hussein of Iraq in the early 1990’s. I served at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, during that time. We set up telephone networks to pass information to American citizens in the region. No one owned a cell phone.

By the time of the second war with Iraq in the early 2000’s, I had returned for another tour in Saudi Arabia. We had graduated to emails for notification of events to our American citizen community. Only a few years later, our communication tools have advanced light years even from those times.

Besides using tweets to notify their citizens, U.S. officials abroad also monitor the tweets of foreign governments and political parties. These includes tweets in the native language as well as any English language tweets. During the Egyptian attacks, the U.S. Embassy noticed differing messages by governing Egyptians, depending on the language. A message in Arabic called on Egyptians to support the demonstrations against the Americans. A message in English offered sympathy and support to the Embassy.

The Embassy responded with its own tweet: “Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those, too.”

Anger in a Connected World


The U.S. State Department has just confirmed that the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed yesterday in Benghazi, Libya. A mob, angered by a movie supposedly made in the U.S. that they considered offensive to Islam, attacked the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city.

As a retired Foreign Service officer for the U.S. State Department, I can’t help but feel a personal involvement in this tragedy, though I didn’t know the victims. The ambassador apparently was an able diplomat, serving his country previously in Libya and other Middle Eastern posts.

I thought back to a sudden demonstration before another U.S. consulate in an Arab country, one where I served. I remember the chants of demonstrators against some perceived wrong that the U.S. government had done. I remember the prickle of fear as we listened to those chants on the other side of our consulate walls and scurried to secure documents and prepare as we had been taught to do in such a situation, should consulate security be breached.

Fortunately, the government of the country where I served was intact, not like the Libyan one, still struggling to form after the overthrow of a dictator. In our case, government troops appeared, and the demonstrators scattered and left.

Another reason for our more fortunate ending, I believe, was that the demonstrators were not organized.  Though the Internet was rapidly expanding, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist to fan flames of anger and to pinpoint a place to release that anger. The Internet and social media bring us the usual double-edged sword of blessings and curses.

Any people can be incited to commit acts of violence. African-Americans have been murdered by mobs in the not too distant past in our own country. Recently, worshipers have been killed in religious gatherings.

One news article focused on anger points in political campaigns. The purpose is to arouse citizens to such anger that they will vote certain ways. Yet anger, once incited, sometimes catches fire in the minds of deranged or immature individuals, leading to the taking of lives.

In a previous blog I pointed out that the anger and frustration of the German middle class after World War I led them to choose Hitler and the Nazis. They had reasons for their anger, but they were wrong to accept Nazism as a solution. Angry people have, at best, made stupid decisions and at worst, committed murders and terrorist actions against innocents.

We carry grave responsibilities for the handling of our anger, especially in this age of connectedness. In this case, both the mob that killed in Benghazi and the maker of the movie that incited them need to ask if they handled their anger in a responsible manner.

Stories Within Stories


A novel may unfold on several levels.  The first is the entertainment level. One can read it for pleasure and be perfectly satisfied. The story may also suggest deeper elements, if the reader wishes to explore them.

My newest novel, Distant Thunder, (OakTara Publishers), is, on one level, a romance. A divorced mom facing her only child’s deployment to Afghanistan, deals with anxiety over that, as well as the boring muddle her life has become. On a train ride, she meets a U.S. diplomat grieving the death of his wife in a car accident in the Middle East after a marital quarrel. A close friend was killed in a car accident a couple of weeks later. A coincidence? Was betrayal to country involved?

The two edge toward cautious friendship, but always with past hurts simmering below the surface.

So there you have it: a romance with a bit of mystery, even intrigue, thrown into the plot.

If you wish, you can fish for deeper elements, also.

Following are excerpts from a review by Bruce Judisch, who understood the different strands.

In Distant Thunder, Ms. O’Barr has melded a personal journey of searching and restoration with a candid, point-blank look at American culture and faith.  Okay, that’s been done before.  A lot.  But what makes this book unique is the author’s perspective on America through the eyes of Americans who have spent a considerable portion of their adult lives outside of America.   . . .

(Excerpted from  http://brucejudisch.blogspot.com/  May 13, 2012.)

You can read it for pure entertainment or go deeper, as you wish.

Like This, Lord? Surely Not

God Surprises

If we are Christians, we hear this Bible verse often during Advent: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his son . . .” (Galatians 4:4, RSV) Though plans for Jesus’ birth may have begun in eternity, their fulfilment surely hit like a tsunami to those involved.

So it must have seemed to a peasant Jewish teenager named Mary. Mary marveled at what God was asking her to do—didn’t seem possible—but she obeyed.

But really, now—the Jews had prayed for the Messiah for centuries, and this is the way God answered their prayers?

Elizabeth Elliot writes in A Slow and Certain Light of the call that came to her to serve among the Auca people, members of whom had killed her husband. She writes of the call: “And when it came, it was as clear as the sunlight. What to do was all mapped out for me exactly, and I had a matter of minutes to make up my mind to do it.”

Years ago, I passed the exam for the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service, but for over two years, nothing happened, so I chose another job, one I fell in love with.  Then, just before a weekend, a woman called from the Department and said I was eligible for entry into the Foreign Service, but I must decide immediately. I asked for the weekend to decide. That weekend I attended a stimulating conference in connection with my current job. I decided I loved that job and would not exchange it for the unknown of the Foreign Service. But I prayed that I would do God’s will. On Monday morning, I told the woman I would accept the offer for the Foreign Service. I still, to this day, cannot explain why I said yes when I planned to say no. An exciting life opened to me that I have never regretted choosing.

Perhaps the key to finding our path is to busy ourselves with what is at hand: applying for jobs, housekeeping, studying, working hard and honestly. We do well whatever comes to our hand and trust that God’s call can best find us there.

Living Serendipitously In Harm’s Way

Our ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, summoned the American staff on August 7, 1998, to tell us that terrorists had bombed two U.S. embassies in east Africa. Over 200 people were killed and thousands injured in attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. As we sat, stunned, we had no way of knowing that these tragedies, carried out by an early al-Qaeda, were a prelude to the even more horrible attacks of 9/11 in New York City.

The daughter of U.S. diplomats serving in Kenya in 1998 recently wrote of her experience on that day. Only five, she was in the embassy with her mother when the attack occurred. She and her family escaped physical harm, but imprinted in her mind is the memory of a Kenyan man, crimson red on his ebony skin, “mouth wide open in agony . . . I understood then that I shared with that man an experience of terrible, hateful, unfair violence.”

She speaks of later interactions with scarred survivors, families now without spouses and parents, other men and women left handicapped, and of their amazing resilience. “Together, we built a memorial park; we prosecuted the guilty; we moved forward; we learned to dance again. . . . Together, we live serendipitously.”

Read her article in Foreign Service Journal.