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According to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the union representing members of the foreign service, roughly 13,000 individuals are involved in overseas diplomacy, at 260-plus U.S. diplomatic missions around the world.
Since 1980, AFSA president Susan Johnson has served at a number of those missions, from Havana, Mauritius and Moscow to Romania, Iraq and Bosnia.
Johnson pretty much grew up in the foreign service, since her dad was a member. "And my mother would have been," she says, "except she married my father and in those days, in the '40s, married women were not allowed to serve in the foreign service."
Since then, that rule 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 "hardship posts."
"Hardship posts, really, it's just all the things you do not get that we would consider normal," Johnson says. That includes a lack of schools, a difficult climate and health situation and prevalence of organized crime.
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.
The hardships of foreign service
Citing statistics from AFSA surveys over the last eight years, Johnson says 89 percent of the foreign service now say they have served in hardship posts of 15 percent or above. And when it comes to what the foreign service refers to as "danger posts," Johnson says, "Thirty-three percent say they've served in unaccompanied posts. And 'unaccompanied posts' means they're so dangerous that you can't take your family."
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. In terms of all authorized evacuations since June 1988, Johnson says the reasons for these ordered departures include everything from earthquakes and cyclones to civil unrest, war and, of course, terrorism.
"That's the environment in which diplomacy needs to operate, and we accept that," Johnson says.
Someone who accepted that environment for more than five years is Craig Lebamoff, an associate counsel at the Department of Homeland Security. But before taking that post, he was a foreign service officer.
"I joined a few months after 9-11, because I think I was caught up in the idea that we should all do something, do whatever we can, if you could," he says.
One of Lebamoff's most memorable days from his time in the Foreign Service was July 28, 2004. He was at the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan, where he and his wife were serving as diplomats. Lebamoff was the general services officer, in charge of 65 of the embassy's blue-collar employees, and his wife was a community liaison officer.
That afternoon, his wife was outside the embassy, waiting for a cake to arrive for a colleague's retirement party. Lebamoff was doing paperwork in his office when suddenly, right around 3:15, he recalls "there was a big boom."
It was a big enough boom to throw staffers in the embassy's front room against the wall. Lebamoff's office was farther back in the building, across a courtyard, so by the time he felt the impact, "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."
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.
"Unfortunately it killed the two policemen," Lebamoff says. "So they gave up their lives to protect the U.S. embassy."
The bomber died, too. Some embassy workers were injured. But the scariest part, Lebamoff says, was "the lack of control. Not just 'is it a more concentrated attack, and are they gonna breach the perimeter and come and kill me,' but more, 'where's my wife, where are my employees that I'm responsible for, and are my kids alright?'"
Susan Johnson says those thoughts have crossed the mind of many Foreign Service officers, because the way she sees it, international diplomacy inherently involves two things: risk and danger.
Foreign service: A rewarding experience
AFSA maintains a memorial plaque for all members of the foreign service or the embassy community who are killed in the line of duty, and 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.
"If you add up all the 'terrorist attacks,' we have 16 out of 22," Johnson says. " So the majority of them."
And yet, she says, for all the risk and danger that accompany the diplomatic life, there are plenty of rewards, too.
"It's not a career where you're going to get rich," Johnson says. "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.
[Music: "Beyond The Sea" by Django Reinhardt from Djangology]
Photos: Foreign Service