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The View From Here: Reporting to you from Arlington, Virginia

Mike Gangwer Published on 25 February 2009
I am sitting in a large classroom at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Around me are about 70 adults. They are young and old, white, black and brown, and arrived here from all over the world. Yet we all have one reason to be here. We are soon to be Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) working at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate somewhere on the globe.

The U.S. Department of State has 260 or so of these posts. They are staffed by civilians with a wide range of skills. All are diplomats. All agree to live somewhere else so that U.S. government foreign policy can be implemented. Every week another class begins. Every week a class graduates and, with our duty assignments in hand, fly off to our duty stations. Because I will soon be based at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, I am required to be here and attend another two weeks of training, too.

We had a class picture at noon today. We lined up in somewhat haphazard manner, smiled and tried to show our face if we tall folks stood in the back row. At lunch every day, we talk about our future posts. I have met people here destined for every reach of the planet. Some are going to Lisbon, Spain; Paris, France; London, England; or San Paulo, Brazil. Still others are destined for war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. The minimum time period for these details is one year. Many FSOs leave one post and, after a small rest break stateside, go elsewhere.

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Our training here is extraordinary. For instance, we are told how to blend in the crowd, avoid hijacking, handle a chemical attack, what to do if we are in the zone of a weapon of mass destruction, how to wear a gas mask, how to be evacuated if the compound is overrun and then on a more personal level, how a FSO deals with an unaccompanied duty post (no family or spouse).

This simply means we are hoping for a good tour but preparing for the worst. Our instructors are U.S. military, CIA case officers, and FBI counterintelligence officers. They drill into our minds the survival strategies honed by years of interviewing those having experienced these events. One of the most dangerous scenarios is kidnapping, especially in Iraq. Interestingly enough, I did not find another person in the class going to Iraq, although many in the class do not talk about their next post.

Several of my fellow classmates have never been overseas before. They are eager, excited and ask many questions. Some of us older students appear a bit more docile. That is we take notes and nod our head because we too have many anecdotal stories about Foreign Service work. I have not yet talked with anyone about what I experienced in Afghanistan. Keeping those experiences to me seems appropriate.

I will admit to you I have a completely different mentality as I approach this Iraq assignment as compared to my Afghanistan tour three years ago. The reason: I know very well what I am up against. After the newness of living someplace new, the reality sets in. The time away from everything familiar. The long hours of work with very little down time. That in spite of the best mission planning, security constraints can turn our path a different direction. We cannot leave the military base or the Embassy compound for extended time periods.

I mentioned to Sandy recently that I was already homesick. The mental awareness of serving in a place eight time zones away, a war zone, is no longer an unknown to me.

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Yet, as I have written on these pages, the mission is important, and that in the context of being a patriot and humanitarian, we do serve. The 70 or so of my classmates are here for the same reason. We serve our country and go into the world wherever the need is the greatest, and try to fix failing or failed states. We teach the Rule of Law that I wrote about last article. We teach without trying to overcome. We build trust without trying to dominate. We are empathetic and compassionate. And we never forget that once we return home, home is still a place we will never take for granted.

And then I must end with this, my dear readers. Recently I had written about my friend and colleague, Paula Loyd. As part of the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, she was assigned to a military unit in Afghanistan. She was doused with gasoline and lit on fire. After two months of extraordinary effort by her family, the medical community and the extended FSO community who knew and loved her, she died on Jan. 7, 2009. As I had written to another colleague, this is the end of a life well lived, doing what she wanted, and serving a country she so dearly loved. She was 30 years old.

So one lesson to me is clear…in spite of the very best training here at the FSI in Arlington, Virginia, and Paula completed this very course I am in today, one enters harm’s way with many unknowns.

I am sure of this fact too: that living an authentic life, a perennial theme of this column, one must sacrifice in order to obtain something worthwhile. Every person in this room, without exception, is willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Each of us enters that place where the path is difficult at times, and we are completely vulnerable in a far-away land. Paula was vulnerable. Yet she served with her heart and certainly, most of all, led an extraordinary life.

And, authentic whilst in this world. PD

Mike Gangwer
USDA – NRCS Nutrient Management Specialist

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