Saturday, August 10, 2013

Diplomatic Life: A Career That Almost Wasn't

United States Capitol
United States Capitol (Photo credit: Jack's LOST FILM)

Here we are at the final in this series on my life as a diplomat, at the beginning of my career with the U.S. Foreign Service. If this trip back through time hasn’t confused readers, I hope they will have found something of use in it.

In the summer of 1981, I was assigned as a senior language training advisor for Slavic languages at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio in Monterey, California. I’d just finished a two-year tour as the Unconventional Warfare Plans Officer for the Korean-US Combined Forces Command in Korea and was preparing to retire the next summer after completing 20 years of military service. Having spent two decades serving my country, and traveling to some interesting places in the world, I’d become addicted to both, and was at a loss as to what to do with the rest of my life. I had a job offer to be a public relations officer at a major airport, but wasn’t really looking forward to a routine 9 to 5 job. Thankfully, the Presidio librarian, a French-Senegalese who was married to one of the sergeants major on post, was a friend who I often spent my lunch hour discussing books with, was just the person to turn to. She suggested a career in diplomacy to satisfy both of my desires – service and travel.

The problem was, despite having worked with people in US embassies in Asia for several years, I had no idea how they got their jobs. In those days the Foreign Service and State Department did a lousy job of recruiting other than at Ivy League colleges – in fact, they didn’t bother recruiting anywhere else. My friend stepped up to the plate and found an old book that described how to apply for the Foreign Service Exam. I applied, and that December, took the written exam in San Jose, a few miles up the coast from Monterey. I almost didn’t make it. The exam was on a Saturday, and I’d had a long, hard Friday at the language school and overslept. When I woke up and saw the time, I almost panicked. My wife advised me to go back to bed because I couldn’t possible drive from Monterey to San Jose in the morning fog in the less than two hours I had. I’m from East Texas, though, and no one should ever challenge me. I decided to make a run for it. After showering and dressing quickly, and gulping a cup of coffee, I jumped into the car and took off like a cruise missile, aimed through the pea soup fog at San Jose.

It was a harrowing drive, but I made it to the test center with ten minutes to spare. I took the exam, which lasted almost four hours, and went back home where I immediately collapsed as what I’d done sunk into my brain.

A few weeks later, I received word that I’d passed the test and was offered a chance to take the all-day oral exam in San Francisco in April. For that one, I put the family into the station wagon and drove to San Francisco the day before the exam. We stayed at the historic Presidio of San Francisco, which was still a military base at the time. The next day, I left the family to tour the city and reported to the test center downtown.

I don’t remember too much of the process, other than I think I alienated one of the four examiners, a heavyset woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. She asked a question about US policy toward Latin America, and the smart ass that I am, I said I didn’t think we had a policy since we stopped using gun boats. She was apparently a Latin America specialist, and didn’t appreciate my levity. Fortunately, the other examiner wasn’t offended and his score offset hers. I did well on the other parts of the exam, especially the leadership and management exercise, called an ‘in-box’ exam. In that one, we were given a stack of documents and told we had about an hour to decide what to do with them. Not much you can really do in an hour, so I marked 90 percent of them for the attention of my ‘deputy’ and other members of my ‘staff,’ finishing the exercise in about 45 minutes. I noticed that the other three candidates were struggling to write answers to each document. Turns out that what they were looking for on that portion of the assessment was whether or not we understood the principle of delegation; something I’d learned well in the military.

A few weeks more, and we were now in May. I was informed that I’d also passed the oral and was on the registers for hiring in four career fields; administration, consular, political, and public affairs. They were hiring in administration early, with a class staring in August, while the others were not being hired until near the end of the year. Since I was due to retire from the army in September, I didn’t want to be forced to sit around unemployed for even three months, so I talked to the base personnel officer who informed me that I could take leave and take the Foreign Service job. I would be retired on schedule and my papers would be mailed.

I packed our furniture and had it shipped to Washington, and in early July, after my security clearance had been verified, piled the family into the car and started driving cross country from California to Washington, DC. We too our time, enjoying the sites along the way, and even took a detour up through Canada, with a stop at Niagara Falls.

When I got to DC, we rented a place, and on August 1, I reported to the office in Arlington, Virginia where the Foreign Service Institute was located. They were a bit shocked when I walked into the office. Turns out, they’d assumed because of my military rank that I was white and hadn’t had me complete the ethnic identification forms which would have entitled me to enter the service at a mid-level grade rather than as a junior officer. Since I was looking forward to enjoying my new career, it didn’t seem to matter, so I just waved it off.

Orientation training, the A-100 course, started on August 10, I believe. My class had 26 people, 20 junior officers and 6 of the mid-level hires. We had a great nine weeks getting to know each other. I’m not sure we learned a lot about diplomacy as a career, though. In that regard, little has changed, except the course is now five or six weeks. I wasn’t the oldest person in the group, but only by a few years. A couple of the mid-level hires were senior in age by a few years. But, I was the only one with a military background, and that led to some interesting conversations. Seems most of my colleagues had a distorted view of professional military people, and were shocked that I didn’t really fit the stereotype. Some of them even thought I was actually a CIA employee taking the training in preparation for a cover job somewhere. Boy, were they surprised when my retirement certificate and medal arrived in the mail a week before we took the oath of office as Foreign Service Officers. Our swearing-in ceremony, conducted by Bruce Laingen, who had been one of the hostages when Iran took over our embassy in the 1970s, was on the 8th floor of the State Department, in a room where I was later sworn in twice to be an ambassador, and where I had my retirement ceremony 30 years later in September 2012.

After orientation, I did the consular training course and six months of Chinese language training in preparation for my first assignment in Guangzhou, China.

Looking back, oversleeping and almost missing the exam, one might assume my career didn’t exactly have a stellar start. You could look at it another way, though. Obstacles are to be overcome, and if you’re determined to do something, you can do it. That’s my philosophy anyway.

There you have it. We’ve reached the end of this series of remembrances at the beginning of a career that I don’t regret a single day of.

Your humble servant.

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