In the eighth and final installment of his series "America's Other Army," Washington Times correspondent Nicholas Kralev describes the ups and downs and the pros and cons of the Foreign Service as a career. One of those he interviewed for this final installment is Brenda Schoonover, the American Chargé d'Affairs in Brussels and a Board Member of American Diplomacy Publishers.Assoc. Ed.
Eighth (and last) in a series
Carol Hazzard was a 20-year-old secretary at the University of Buffalo in 1969, but the life she dreamed about was far removed from the monotony of upstate New York. "My only goal in life was to travel and see the world," she recalled recently.
One night, her mother asked her to go to the corner grocery store for some milk, and on her way there, she ran into her old high-school basketball coach, who was working as a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines.
"She told me the best job I could wish for was with the State Department, working in American embassies overseas," Miss Hazzard said.
After a long application process, she joined the U.S. Foreign Service in September 1973, and, after three weeks of training, began working as a secretary at the embassy in Paris.
More than three decades later, she has served in 70 countries around the world " both on regular assignments lasting from two to four years, and as a "rover," filling positions at various missions for several weeks or months.
"I think my brothers and sisters don't understand why I spent 30 years traveling," Miss Hazzard said in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, her most recent roving post. "The first 15 years they thought I was a bit odd, but now they enjoy my stories and take me for what I am."
Soon after speaking to The Washington Times, she received a regular assignment at the U.S.Mission to the United Nations in Vienna, Austria. She has chosen to remain what the State Department now calls an office-management specialist, rather than become a Foreign Service officer or a diplomat.
Miss Hazzard said she enjoys both the responsibilities and benefits that come with representing the United States overseas. The vast majority of more than 260 Foreign Service members interviewed in Washington and at about 30 posts on five continents agreed.
"I've had one of the most exciting lives anybody could possibly want," said Laura Clerici, consul-general in Mexico City. "I've been held up by bandits, I've had really bad guys after me in both Poland and Honduras. I've been part of history, and I've made a real difference in people's lives."
Although most of those interviewed could not imagine doing anything else for a living, they said that being constantly on the move and far from home often means giving up much of what most Americans take for granted.
Some of them are also torn between a desire to serve and an adventurous spirit, on one hand, and the possibility of raising a family in a world that is increasingly hostile to Americans.
"You have to make up your mind what's important. I decided early on I wasn't going to get married. I've lost two brothers and my parents, and I was not in the U.S. for any of their deaths," Miss Clerici said. "But I felt called to public service, so I don't begrudge any of it.
"Most people in the Foreign Service are ambitious and capable, and if you want to advance, you have to make a lot of sacrifices."
Behind the glamour
Dennis Hankins, deputy chief of mission in Maputo, Mozambique, lived through Congo's civil war, coups in Sudan and Haiti, and also has worked in Brazil, Thailand and Portugal.
Virginia Farris, a public-affairs officer in Pretoria, South Africa, has served in places as diverse as Pakistan, Tunisia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Jamaica.
The life of a diplomat long has been associated with glitz and glamour, and to some extent, that perception holds true. American diplomats are still some of the most sought-after people in capitals around the globe, even though not everyone today wants to be a friend of the United States.
Foreign Service members are often in the company of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, and their positions allow them to meet other famed personalities.
Miss Hazzard, who has met Pope John Paul II, said her office at the embassy in Rome, a former royal palace where she worked in the late 1990s, used to be the Italian queen's drawing room.
But life in the Foreign Service today, especially in Third World hardship posts, hardly matches the images of striped-pants diplomats sipping expensive cocktails at extravagant parties.
For Brenda Schoonover, acting ambassador to Belgium, the main challenge when she took charge at the embassy in the African state of Togo in January 1998 was making sure there was electricity in the building.
"We would go 30 hours without power at a time," she said.
Polluted drinking water, severe pollution, malaria and other diseases are facts of life in dozens of overseas posts. Constant security threats in countries such Colombia, Haiti and Liberia and in areas such as the Middle East, make living conditions even harder.
Although the dangerous environment often makes it hard for diplomats to venture beyond the walls of missions and residential compounds, several officers said many of their colleagues in First World posts also fail to socialize with the locals.
"Part of effectively representing the United States means understanding the culture where we are living," said Jeff Anderson, a junior officer in Brussels. "I was surprised how many people are content with just staying in their communities."
"How do you ask another person to put their life on hold and follow you?" was a question several officers posed.
Maggie Philpott-Himes, an English teacher whose husband works at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, said the mobility of her profession, as well as that of journalists and consultants, makes things much easier.
"I can carry my work from country to country," she said at a town hall meeting with more than 20 spouses at the embassy's residential compound. "It was more difficult for me in the States."
But two officers whose wives are architects said the diplomatic life destroyed their careers.
The State Department has been trying to create more positions for spouses at posts, but most of them are secretarial and lack opportunities for advancement in pay and grade level, which means new hires have to start from the beginning every time.
To solve the problem, some spouses also join the service, only to find that it is not that easy for "tandem couples" to secure jobs at the same post.
Things are even harder for same-sex partners, who do not enjoy diplomatic privileges and other benefits that are guaranteed to married couples.
Three same-sex couples in Africa, Asia and the Middle East said they recognize there is little the State Department can do unless the law changes. The one thing it could do, they said, would be to reimburse them for the cost of transporting a partner to a new post as "a miscellaneous expense."
They also said the treatment of homosexual officers in the service has improved since the policy of denying them security clearance for fear of being blackmailed was revoked more than a decade ago.
"It never affected my career negatively," said Jason Davis, consul-general in Dubai, who joined the service in 1990 and lives with his partner of six years. "No one I've come across in the last 10 years at the senior levels of the State Department has cared whether you are gay or straight."
Foreign Service children
Growing up in the service produces mixed results, said the interviewed officers and specialists. Living in different countries is culturally enriching and creates a world view that a child would not acquire in the United States.
But being uprooted every couple of years deprives children of a sense of belonging and makes it difficult for them to maintain friendships.
Dozens of parents said one of the most important lessons their children have learned is how much suffering there is in the world and how lucky they are to have been born in the United States.
"My daughter's feeling about the kids in the U.S. was that they didn't realize how much they have and are very materialistic," said Hilary Oslin-Windecker, public affairs officer in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Overseas posts have family liaison offices that help newcomers to get settled, offering advice on schooling and child care, among other family matters. Some Foreign Service children flourish, while others find it difficult to adjust to the distinctive environment and people in every new country.
Nevertheless, parents said, the toughest adjustment for children often comes with a return to the United States after years abroad.
"I think being a Foreign Service child is being a better-rounded American, because most Americans are geographically incompetent," said Chris McFarland, a 10th-grader whose father is deputy chief of mission in Caracas, Venezuela.
"It would be nice to live in the U.S., because it's safe and I can walk to my friend's house, but I get to meet people from all over the world," he said.
A schoolmate of his, 11th-grader Allison Arias, daughter of another officer in Caracas, said: "I've become more patriotic because I'm away from my country."
All parents said their children's well-being is a major factor in deciding what assignment to take next. For that reason, some said, they have given up on making it to the top levels of the Foreign Service.
"I have no aspirations of becoming an ambassador, because I wouldn't go where they would send me," said a senior officer in London. "I have a 12-year-old son and a husband with limited medical clearance, so I would have to go by myself. It would be to places like Cambodia or Mongolia. The title doesn't mean enough to me to go there."
Foreign Service members who are single and have no children are sometime envied by their colleagues for having no additional responsibilities. But they say being in a foreign country and having no one to go home to at night is difficult.
"The hardest thing is that you arrive in a new country alone. I can't take anybody with me who has the same memories. To have a social life, I have to create it. I have to make new friends," said Barbara Zigli, public affairs officer in Bratislava.
"And then it all ends," she said. "After four years in Hong Kong in 2001, I cried on the way to the airport. I knew it was a whole life I was leaving behind once that plane took off. It's a little death every time. But I've never regretted joining the Foreign Service. It makes me feel alive."
Copywright 2004 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the Washington Times.