Diplomats in the trenches: Fighting for change in the face of prejudice

Kero6Ken Kero was working in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin in 2006, when he met a German film editor and photographer named David Mentz. Two years later, they got married and changed both their last names to Kero-Mentz.

At the time, the meaning of “married” was tricky. Germany recognized same-sex marriage “in all but name,” in Ken’s words, but the U.S. government, his employer, didn’t acknowledge such relationships at all. In the State Department’s eyes, he was single.

That was tolerable in Germany, but it became a serious problem when it was time for the couple to move to Ken’s next post in Sri Lanka. David (pictured left) didn’t get any of the benefits that straight Foreign Service spouses enjoyed, such as health insurance, assistance in case of emergency or evacuation and a diplomatic passport ― in fact, he wasn’t allowed to have a U.S. passport of any kind.

What made things worse was that in Sri Lanka homosexuality was ― and still is ― illegal. Although the law is not enforced most of the time, for legal purposes, same-sex relationships don’t exist. So for the Sri Lankan government, David had no reason to reside in the country and was only eligible for a short-term tourist visa, which had to be renewed frequently ― at a Sri Lankan embassy or consulate abroad, forcing otherwise unnecessary trips. “We were traveling in and out of the country, and the fact that the government was being so difficult made it even harder for us to like the place,” Ken said…
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: ‘We come in all shapes and sizes’

Kenney5Kristie Kenney often seems upbeat and chipper, but on the day I first met her in 2012 in Bangkok, where she was the U.S. ambassador, she was especially excited, in anticipation of a rare event the next day.

The Boeing Company was flying in its newest commercial plane, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which she saw as an opportunity to promote the U.S. aircraft industry, and American business in general. An added bonus was the fact that the president of Boeing for Southeast Asia who also flew in for the event, Ralph Boyce, was one of Kenney’s predecessors at the embassy in Bangkok, whom many Thais still remembered because of his superb command of their language.

An event with the U.S. ambassador in almost any country would attract media attention, and Kenney used the chance to showcase issues she deemed important to American interests. Promoting U.S. business and expanding trade was one of the top issues on her agenda. “Every single day of the year we promote American companies and help to find new opportunities for Americans to do business here,” she said. “It starts with me wearing a Coca Cola T-shirt at a basketball game or carrying a Starbucks cup.”

Not long after the Boeing event, Kenney gave a speech at Cotton Day, organized by Cotton USA to promote American cotton exports. She wore a dress made entirely of U.S. cotton…

Photo courtesy of U.S. Mission Thailand
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: Finding your own way to make a difference

Wechsel1Hans Wechsel was a 29-year-old restaurant manager in Oregon with a degree in secondary education in 1999, when his career took a drastic turn. Having passed the Foreign Service entrance exams despite his lack of foreign affairs experience, he became a diplomat.

“What a great system for someone like me, where you can, based on merit and ability, get into a career like this,” said Wechsel, whose résumé at the time also included seasonal work as a tour guide at Yellowstone National Park. His first assignment in the service was in the West African country of Ghana.

New career diplomats often wonder how long it will take them to be entrusted with truly important work and make a real difference. Many of their senior colleagues say they will have a chance to prove themselves in the first five years. Since 9/11, the opportunities for entry-level officers to take on significant responsibilities have increased, allowing them to manage people and large budgets.

Wechsel ended up making a crucial difference during his second tour, as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, where he was responsible for the counterterrorism portfolio and had frequent interactions with various parts of the Belgian judicial system. In 2003, he came upon an unusual law, about which the United States had little reason to worry until then…
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: When your workplace is a terror target

Mirza1Sumreen Mirza’s path to the Foreign Service began in her parents’ homeland, Pakistan. She was an intern at an NGO in the southern port city of Karachi in 2002, when the U.S. Consulate there was attacked in a massive explosion that killed 15 Pakistanis.

Mirza’s proximity to the terrorist act and the torn-down consulate wall had an unexpected effect: it encouraged her to consider a diplomatic career. “I thought I could make a difference on the other side of that wall,” she recalled. “I had a background in urban planning and environmental engineering, and worked for the Army Corps of Engineers.”

That background determined Mirza’s choice of management and administration work as her career track in the Foreign Service when she joined in 2005. Her first posting was as a management officer at the consulate in another Pakistani city, Peshawar. “One of my big challenges was to find new land and space for operations,” she said. “We were in a very small building, and we were very close to a major street and intersection, so it was easy for a car bomber to attack us ― and a couple of years after I left, that’s exactly what happened.”

That 2010 assault, which included a truck bomb, machine guns and rocket launchers, killed six Pakistanis and wounded 20. As in Karachi, there were no American casualties. The attackers failed to breach the outer perimeter of the compound but demolished part of an exterior wall. Earlier this year, two Pakistani employees of the consulate were killed by an explosive device while on a drug-eradication mission…
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: Improvising in a ‘non-permissive environment’

Ference3Matthew Ference belongs to a select group of American diplomats who passed the Foreign Service entrance exams on their first try. He attributes it to being relaxed and trying not to care too much.

When he applied in 2003, Ference, who is currently the public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Laos, had already been accepted to two graduate programs. So he “didn’t study for the exams or expect to pass, which reduced the pressure immeasurably,” he said. “I didn’t grow up dreaming of being a diplomat, so I approached the written and oral exams like any other test ― great if I passed, but not the end of the world if I failed.”

More than 20,000 Americans apply to join the Foreign Service every year, but only several hundred are hired, depending on budget constraints and the service’s needs. About 40 percent of all candidates pass the written exam on average each time it is offered, according to the State Department, though many take it more than once. It’s a standardized multiple-choice test with questions about history, politics, economics, geography, popular culture and other areas, and also includes an essay. It doesn’t test for knowledge of the history or functions of diplomacy.

Of those who make it to the oral assessment, about a third are successful on average. It consists of a group exercise based on a case study of a fictitious country where the U.S. Embassy must deal with a certain situation, as well as an individual interview and a case-management exercise, in which each candidate must write a memo to a superior recommending a course of action…
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: ‘Diplomacy is about human to human’

NulandVictoria Nuland wasn’t necessarily looking for love when she joined the Foreign Service in 1984, but she found it anyway — fairly quickly and not too far away. While working on the China desk at the State Department, she started dating a young speechwriter for then-Secretary of State George Shultz.

When they got married three years later, the inevitable question arose: What would her husband, Robert Kagan, do while his diplomat-wife served abroad? He didn’t think that joining the Foreign Service himself would be the best solution, and he really wanted to write. So that was what he did.

“He wrote his first book, on Nicaragua, in the spare bedroom of our Moscow apartment,” recalled Nuland, who was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Russia from 1991 until 1993. “The KGB used to rifle his office regularly — we could tell by the lingering stench of cigarettes and body odor. They couldn’t fathom that he was really just a writer.”

Since then, Nuland has built a career that is the envy of many American diplomats. She was the first female ambassador to NATO and is currently the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs — most of her colleagues never get to be ambassadors, let alone assistant secretaries.
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: From ‘observing and reporting’ to ‘advocacy and lobbying’

Lindwall1Working saved David Lindwall’s life — literally. He was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti in January 2010, when a catastrophic earthquake flattened his house. He felt very lucky to be in the quake-resistant embassy building when the earth shook.

His colleague Victoria DeLong, however, wasn’t that lucky — she was killed when her house collapsed. Overall, hundreds of thousands of people and a quarter-million buildings perished. DeLong, who was the embassy’s cultural affairs officer, spent 27 of her 57 years in the Foreign Service.

For American diplomats serving abroad, natural disasters, along with terrorist attacks, carjackings, kidnappings, robberies and even murder, are part of their way of life. Yet many, including Lindwall, are drawn to dangerous postings more often than to plush ones. After Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Lindwall went to Iraq. He cut short his next assignment as consul-general in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to serve in Afghanistan, where he is currently the deputy chief of mission.

“Even though not every officer has had such experiences, dealing with disasters is very much a part of the Foreign Service life,” Lindwall said. “After my house in Haiti collapsed, I slept with the Marines that first night. The second night, the Marines brought a cod, a pillow and a blanket into my office. I slept there for about six weeks…”
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: Wearing flip-flops more often than suits

SenAnjalina Sen is a diplomat of a peculiar kind. She finds diplomatic receptions “a bit more onerous than sleeping in a bamboo hut for a week.” It makes sense, then, that she has spent her nine years in the Foreign Service so far working mostly on refugee issues.

“We do a lot of business at receptions, but the field work I do is phenomenal,” she said. “Talking to refugees about their experience, their hopes and dreams, and figuring out how to bring that up with our policy — that’s what gets me really excited. I’m often in refugee camps, so I spend a lot of time in flip flops. I don’t like wearing a suit.”

The daughter of a Canadian mother and an Indian father, Sen grew up in Brazil, Mexico and Portugal. After working on Wall Street, she made what seemed a natural career choice for someone with her cosmopolitan upbringing. Soon after joining the Foreign Service, she found herself in the middle of the now-infamous passport crisis of 2007, when new entry requirements for Americans traveling to Canada and other countries in the Western Hemisphere caused a huge flood of passport applications, overwhelming the State Department. In a very unusual move, Sen and most of her entry-level colleagues were assigned to an emergency task force to help ease the load.

“We didn’t have enough computers and had to hand-adjudicate passport applications,” she said. “But it was a great bonding experience, and I’m still really close with the people I was on that task force with…”
 
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Diplomats in the trenches: ‘Any American, any problem, any time’

Sundwall1Gavin Sundwall stood beside the grave, a Bible in hand, and read John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life…” Two taxi drivers, who had become the deceased woman’s chauffeurs during the last years of her life, shared memories of her and shed tears. They sprinkled the woman’s ashes over the graves of her two husbands, which were just a few feet apart.

The impromptu ceremony at the Corozal American Cemetery outside Panama City in the summer of 1998 was over. Sundwall, a first-tour Foreign Service officer, had never met the elderly American woman when she was alive, even though she had lived in Panama for decades. He saw her for the first time when he went to the morgue to identify her body after she had died from natural causes. That was no unusual duty for him as a consular officer, but the funeral he organized was certainly not in his job description.

“I informed her family back in the U.S. of her death, but they didn’t want to come down and have anything to do with her burial, although they sent money,” Sundwall recalled. “They told us that her last wishes had been to be cremated and have her ashes sprinkled over the graves of her two husbands. All her friends were elderly and didn’t want to come. So who else would have done it if I hadn’t?”

That same year marked the first time Sundwall was in a Panamanian jail. Two Satanist killers sat across from him. Fortunately for him, he was just visiting the criminals, who were U.S. citizens, to make sure they were being treated humanely, and to relay any messages to their families back home…

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Diplomats in the trenches: ‘Diplomacy isn’t about being nice to people’

KimYuri Kim never thought this would happen. It was a cold February day in 2008, and she was sitting in North Korea’s largest concert hall, listening to a performance by the New York Philharmonic — not far from where she was born in South Korea.

A political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, Kim had no apparent reason to be accompanying the renowned American orchestra to the world’s most isolated country, which would have been more suitable for a public diplomacy officer. But it was precisely her task on that unprecedented trip.

She was an aide to Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the time, who was leading high-stakes talks with Pyongyang aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons program. The concert tour was a “carrot,” which Washington hoped — though it didn’t admit publicly — would improve the North’s cooperation in the tough talks. Kim had actually negotiated the visit with the communist government, traveling to Pyongyang on two previous occasions with the philharmonic’s leadership.

“They didn’t want to send Chris, because that would have been too high level, so they sent me,” she said. “I helped develop the program and negotiate the terms of the visit…”

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