Transcripts

U.S. Diplomats Grapple With Risks, Rewards Of Jobs Overseas

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today's show is all about a topic that's been all over the news of late.

SECRETARY OF STATE

00:00:22
This is an attack that should shock the conscience of people of all faiths around the world.

SHEIR

00:00:45
That, of course, was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, followed by international news reports of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, an attack that took the lives of Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans on September 11, 2012. The attack was followed by protests at, and evacuations of, embassies across the Middle East including the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia. 14-year foreign service officer, Ingrid Larson, along with her young son and daughter, was there.

MS. INGRID LARSON

00:01:18
When an embassy evacuates, we don't get that much notice and so I left with my children very quickly. And we went back to the United States so that I could settle the children again since we're not sure how long the evacuation will last. Now that we're here, we have to find our lives again, find child care, figure out how to get to work, I need to get a car, because my car was burned at the embassy.

SHEIR

00:01:43
So in light of these recent events, and given the number of Washingtonians who work in diplomacy or follow foreign affairs, we wanted to bring things closer to home this week. That's why over the next hour we're focusing on the topic of diplomacy. We're bringing you an assortment of stories, some more serious, like the challenges of exercising political diplomacy as the election season heats up, and some more light-hearted. Like how our founding fathers began an intriguing tradition of plant diplomacy. But to begin today's show, we'll take a closer look at people like Ingrid Larson, the roughly 13,000 Americans working at the 260-plus U.S. diplomatic missions around the world.

MS. SUSAN JOHNSON

00:02:30
Hello, this is Susan Johnson.

SHEIR

00:02:31
Since 1980, Susan Johnson has served at a number of those missions. Like Havana, Cuba.

JOHNSON

00:02:37
And Mauritius.

SHEIR

00:02:38
Moscow.

JOHNSON

00:02:38
Romania.

SHEIR

00:02:39
Iraq.

JOHNSON

00:02:40
And Bosnia. I probably left something out somewhere along the way. Now you have it all down.

SHEIR

00:02:46
These days, Johnson is president of the American Foreign Service Association, or AFSA, a union representing workers in five agencies.

JOHNSON

00:02:53
State Department, AID, Foreign Commercial Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, and International Broadcasting Bureau.

SHEIR

00:02:59
Johnson pretty much grew up in the Foreign Service, since her dad was a member.

JOHNSON

00:03:02
And my mother would have been, except she married my father and in those days, in the '40s, married women were not allowed to serve in the foreign service.

SHEIR

00:03:09
Since then, that rule obviously has changed. As have a lot of other things. Take for instance, the number of posts around the world. That's gone up and with it the number of the hardship posts.

JOHNSON

00:03:20
So hardship posts really -- it's just all the things you do not get that we would consider normal.

SHEIR

00:03:26
Like say, a lack of schools.

JOHNSON

00:03:28
A difficult climate and health situation.

SHEIR

00:03:32
Prevalence of organized crime.

JOHNSON

00:03:34
And then perhaps a lot of different dangers, be they, you know, snakes, insects, who knows what.

SHEIR

00:03:38
Employees assigned to these posts receive a hardship differential of 10 to 35 percent of their salary. The greater the hardship, the higher the percentage.

JOHNSON

00:03:48
I got some statistics from AFSA surveys over the last eight years. So we see that 89 percent of the Foreign Service now say they have served in hardship posts of 15 percent or above.

SHEIR

00:03:59
And when it comes to what the Foreign Service refers to as danger posts...

JOHNSON

00:04:03
33 percent say they've served in unaccompanied posts. And unaccompanied post means they're so dangerous that you can't take your family.

SHEIR

00:04:11
Then, as we've recently seen in Lebanon, Tunisia and Sudan, there's the number of Foreign Service workers who have experienced an emergency evacuation. To date, about 22 percent. Johnson has this big spread sheet of all authorized evacuations since June 1988, and the reasons for these ordered departures are numerous.

JOHNSON

00:04:29
Earthquake, civil unrest, terrorism, war, cyclones...

SHEIR

00:04:35
Seeing some crime there.

JOHNSON

00:04:36
Crime, yes, see this is all organized crime. So that's the environment in which diplomacy needs to operate. And we accept that.

SHEIR

00:04:46
And someone who accepted that environment for more than five years is this guy.

MR. CRAIG LEBAMOFF

00:04:51
Craig Lebamoff, attorney for the U.S. government.

SHEIR

00:04:53
Before Lebamoff became associate council at the Department of Homeland Security, he was a foreign service officer.

LEBAMOFF

00:05:00
I joined a few months after 9-11, because I think I was caught up in the, you know, the idea that we should all do something. Do whatever we can, if you could.

SHEIR

00:05:10
I recently met up with Lebamoff at a bustling coffee shop. Where he told me about a day he'll remember forever -- July 28, 2004. It was a sweltering summer afternoon in Uzbekistan.

LEBAMOFF

00:05:25
The temperature in Fahrenheit is usually between 110 and 120.

SHEIR

00:05:29
And Lebamoff was at the U.S. Embassy there. Where he and his wife were serving as diplomats. Lebamoff as...

LEBAMOFF

00:05:34
The general services officer in charge of most of the embassy's blue collar employees.

SHEIR

00:05:39
And his wife as...

LEBAMOFF

00:05:41
The community liaison officer. And my wife and the co-community liaison officer were outside waiting for the cake to come for the retirement party...

SHEIR

00:05:52
Of an embassy colleague. Lebamoff says he was doing paperwork in his office when suddenly right around 3:15...

LEBAMOFF

00:05:59
There was a big boom.

SHEIR

00:06:00
A big enough boom to throw staffers in the embassy's front room against the wall. Lebamoff's office was further back in the building, across a courtyard, so by the time he felt the impact.

LEBAMOFF

00:06:10
The first thing that went through my head was did a car blow up in the parking lot? On second thought I thought maybe it was a grenade that someone had thrown over into the courtyard.

SHEIR

00:06:20
Turns out he was wrong on both counts. Two local police officers had tackled a bomber in front of the embassy and as they struggled, the bomb went off.

LEBAMOFF

00:06:30
Unfortunately it killed the policeman, so they gave up their lives to protect the U.S. embassy.

SHEIR

00:06:35
The bomber died, too. Some embassy workers were injured, but the scariest part, Lebamoff says...

LEBAMOFF

00:06:41
Was the lack of control. Not just, is it a more concentrated attack and are they going to breech the perimeter and come and kill me? But more, you know, where's my wife, where's my employees that I'm responsible for and are my kids all right?

SHEIR

00:06:57
And says Susan Johnson of the American Foreign Service Association, those thoughts have crossed the mind of many a Foreign Service officer. Because the way Johnson sees it, international diplomacy inherently involves two things: risk and danger. Okay, so what are we looking at here?

JOHNSON

00:07:12
So here we're looking at some names that I drew just from AFSA's plaque. AFSA maintains a memorial plaque for all members of the Foreign Service or the embassy community who are killed in the line of duty.

SHEIR

00:07:26
Since the year 2000, those names number more than 20. That's including last month's attack in Libya. As for how these individuals died, there's a plane crash, a helicopter crash, an earthquake, a heart attack, even a case of cerebral malaria. But one cause of death trumps them all.

JOHNSON

00:07:45
If you add up all the terrorist attacks, we have a 16 out of 22. So the majority of them.

SHEIR

00:07:51
And yet, says Susan Johnson, for all the risk and danger that accompany the diplomatic life, there are plenty of rewards, too.

JOHNSON

00:07:58
It's not a career where you're going to get rich, but you may have a very rich life experience. And most people retire really proud to have served in the Foreign Service and to have represented their country and lived history. Because that's a lot of times what you're doing. Other people are reading about it, but you're part of it, living it.

SHEIR

00:08:24
To learn more about the Foreign Service and to read what it takes to become an officer, visit our website metroconnection.org.
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