Sunday, June 9, 2013

Diplomatic Life: A State Department Yankee in the Defense Department's Court

After completing a tour of duty as diplomat-in-residence at the University of Houston, I spent the summer of 2006 chairing a State Department promotion board. Finally, in September, I received White House approval and was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoners of War/Missing Personnel Affairs, with concurrent duty as director of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, an independent defense agency.
I’d been offered the job in a roundabout way; the previous person in the position had fallen ill and been unable to work, and finally had to resign his duties. I’d been asked by Anne Mills Griffith, executive director of one of the main Southeast Asia family of missing groups, if I knew anyone who could fill the job. When we couldn’t come up with a name, she mentioned in an email that if not for my senior rank in the State Department, I’d be the person for it. After a few days of thinking about it, I got back to her; I didn’t think my rank would be an impediment, and if the family groups and the Defense Department would have me, I’d take it.
The process of being interviewed by the White House Personnel Office – and, this was during the time when often ridiculous questions were asked of candidates, such as ‘do you agree with all of the president’s policies?’ – I almost blew it with my answer to that one, but I guess the senior guy (not the one who asked the question) saw how inapplicable the question was, so I was approved.
I took the job at a time when the relationship between the office and the family groups was probably at an all-time low. Families didn’t feel they were listened to, and were understandably angry. Another problem that was quickly apparent; the organization had been in existence for more than 10 years, its mission had more than tripled, but it was still operating with the same budget, and there was little internal budget discipline.
It turned out that, while my prior military experience was helpful in communicating with the military organizations, families of veterans, and veterans groups involved in the mission of accounting for missing personnel from wars back to World War II, it was my diplomatic experience, gained over 24 years in the Foreign Service, that was most useful. That, and some good old fashioned leadership.
Establishing budget discipline – using techniques developed by my deputy Air Force Colonel Dave Ellis – and enforcing some control over policy formulation across a widely scattered community; I had responsibility for personnel recovery (which includes search and rescue) as well, were relatively easy tasks compared to the diplomatic tasks that we faced.
First, I had to reestablish relations with the family groups. This was done through frequent and patient contact with each and every one of them. We did a dog and pony show eight times a year in various regions of the country, and two major presentations in Washington, DC for families, and I opened almost every one of them during my three years on the job. Not only did I make the opening remarks welcoming people to the meetings, but I stayed around for the whole show to talk to individuals who often just wanted to know someone was listening and cared. Sometimes, it was intensely emotional and personal, for me as well as them, like the time I spoke with the sister of a missing man who had served in my outfit in Vietnam in 68-69, doing cross border recon missions into Cambodia, and who had gone missing a month before my tour ended. I don’t know if my words comforted her, but I do know she appreciated that someone who had known her brother was willing to take the time to talk to her, and more importantly, to listen to her.
It took a lot of negotiating skill to work the Pentagon bureaucracy, with dozens of offices assuming they have a stake in what you’re doing, and willing if you allow it, to block anything they don’t like or understand. Sometimes we were successful, sometimes not – but, we won more than we lost. Like the request for a budget adjustment, which many on my own staff thought was a useless exercise. Turned out not to be. We made a good case, and got a budget increase.
Being there was important in dealing with the bureaucracy, too. I went to the field to observe the teams doing excavations at sites in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; talking with the men and women who worked tirelessly under some of the most arduous conditions you can imagine.
I also had to deal with foreign nations: the countries of Southeast Asia, Korea, China, Japan, India, Russia, Colombia, and Israel. During my tenure, we signed an agreement that allowed us access to the Chinese army archives to work on World War II and Korean War cases. Leading a group of my staff and some senior people from Hawaii, I was the first foreign official allowed in the archives. The Chinese pulled out all the stops, taking pictures and making a video of the visit. They even put our picture on the cover of their official brochure. I was invited by the Chinese government to speak at a salvage and rescue conference on Hainan Island, the first American official on the island after the P-3 incident, when one of our surveillance planes had to make an emergency landing there after colliding with a Chinese MIG.
The most memorable moment for me was being invited to speak at a memorial service on Iwo Jima Island attended by the Japanese and American survivors of that terrible World War II battle. Walking the volcanic sand beaches of that island, looking up at Mount Surabachi towering over the beach, I could almost smell the smell of cordite, and hear the cries of dying Marines and soldiers.
There were a lot of moments like that – none quite that moving – during my three years. When it was over, I was sad to leave. I was honored to be able to help Americans gain some sense of closure regarding their lost loved ones. I have to admit, I also liked the perks. I had my own suite of offices in the building in Crystal City that has a Metro station, so I only had to get off the subway, go up an escalator and down a hall, and take the elevator to my office on the 8th floor. When I had to go to the Pentagon for meetings, as a deputy assistant secretary, I could call for a car from the motor pool. I had my own public affairs and congressional relations shop, and could contact members of congress whenever I felt it necessary, and didn’t have to ask ‘Mother may I?’ like I did in my State Department jobs.
During my three years at Defense, I traveled approximately every four to six weeks, either domestically or overseas. I visited more countries as a Defense Department official in three years than I’d done in the previous ten years at State – often as a guest of the government. It didn’t hurt that I’d served previously as an ambassador. The Pentagon folks liked being able to parade their ‘ambassador’ around for folks. It also didn’t hurt that I was a State weenie who’d previously served in the army, so I could act as an interpreter between the two groups.

There was only one drawback: after three years of being relatively independent, getting back into the restrictive State harness took me a few months to adjust to, as those who read the first installment might have guessed. In my next article, I’ll talk about the year I spent as a diplomat-in-residence at the University of Houston.