Foreign service officers detail joys, perils of diplomatic life

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Charles Ray, former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, speaks Wednesday afternoon in the Hall of Christ. Ray and three colleagues from the U.S. foreign service, including public diplomacy officer Sharon Hudson-Dean, to Ray’s right, discussed why they serve in U.S. diplomacy.

Week Seven’s lectures about diplomacy painted a picture of the international landscape with broad brushstrokes. The lecturers took on big topics: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the debate between isolationists and interventionists, the politics of oil.

However, they touched less on the more intricate details of the diplomatic process, which can seem a little inaccessible to the average person, Mark Johnson said. Johnson will soon become a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, the latest of many foreign service postings throughout his career.

“The State Department gets flak for being ‘stripey-pants diplomats with funny hats at cocktail parties,’” he said.

Four U.S. foreign service officers — the official name for American diplomats —  spoke on a panel in the Hall of Christ at 4 p.m. Wednesday, attempting to change that perception and give the week’s theme a human face. The FSOs regaled the audience with some war stories — for lack of a phrase more fitting for diplomats. They also tried to address, as Johnson, the panel’s moderator, put it:  “Why the heck did you choose a career in foreign service?”

Johnson was joined on the panel by Charles Ray, former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe; Sharon Hudson-Dean, public diplomacy officer; and David Meale, counselor for economic affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

All three gave Johnson’s question a shot, and each had his or her own answer.

“You don’t get into this business to get rich,” Meale said.

He said the work gave him a sense of meaning.

“The way you exercise national power has to be done with great care,” Meale said. And that’s something he finds satisfying. It’s also intellectually satisfying: “You have a front row seat to history,” he said.

Hudson-Dean feels the same kind of validation.

“My role and my purpose are clearly defined,” she said, “And in my mind, very positive.”

Ray described himself as a “travel addict” who, thanks to his time in the Army, picked up an interest in “positively affecting people’s lives.”

All four diplomats expressed great job satisfaction and have taken pleasure from their work. But each readily conceded that the life of a foreign service officer is not always easy — especially when one has a family.

Meale talked about some of the dangers that come with postings in developing countries, such as disease, bad schools and sometimes even violence. For example, when Meale worked in Taiwan, the SARS outbreak forced all families of foreign service officers to evacuate the country, as the medical system shut down basically everything non-SARS-related.

Another one of Meale’s comments about the dangers of the job drew a nod-filled silence from the rest of the panel:

“The No. 1 risk, of course, is car accidents,” he said.

Hudson-Dean spoke about the difficulties of raising a family abroad. She said the divorce rate is very high for foreign service officers; she herself is divorced from her husband, also an FSO. And it’s always been tough for married people in the foreign service office. In fact, until 1972, there was an “unwritten policy” that if a woman got married, she had to resign from foreign service work.

Ray agreed about the toll of foreign service work. For example, his son had attended 10 schools by the time he graduated from high school. However, their family returned to the U.S. for a few years so that both of his children could graduate from American high schools. Ray said any move to a new posting has to be discussed and debated by the whole family before an FSO takes the assignment.

Johnson said that many an FSO has mused, “Are we messing with our kids’ heads?” Everyone — both kids and adults — needs to have roots, he said, and it’s harder when you move around so much. But they make it work. He said that although they do have the U.S. as something to which they are all tied, the deepest roots have to come from the nuclear family. They make their own traditions; for example, when Johnson was posted in Jerusalem, he and his family would cut down their own Christmas trees.

All four members of the panel talked about the benefits their jobs have for their kids, too. Their children get to experience many different cultures and get to travel widely — both of which, possibly by occupational hazard, all four FSOs think are of great value to anybody. For example, Hudson-Dean’s son, who enjoys learning about military history, visited famous locations of the Boer Wars when Hudson-Dean worked in South Africa.

Throughout the discussion, the FSOs offered up anecdotes about their daily lives. Ray, the most senior of the FSOs, with 31 years of Department of State experience under his belt, spun the most memorable yarn of the evening. He recalled his stint as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s, when he served as the point man in discussions with the military junta that ran the country after the 1992 coup.

One night, the embassy hosted the members of the junta for dinner. As the officers dug into their meal, the liver and onions they ate stirred a memory in the “huge, hulking” army captain from Sierra Leone sitting to Ray’s left.

During the recent civil war, the captain said to Ray, one rebel unit in particular inflicted significant damage to his troops. Eventually, the captain’s forces caught the leader of that group, and he had his men hold the rebel leader down on the ground.

“He cut [the rebel’s] liver out and ate it before his dying eyes,” Ray said. “I have never touched liver since.”