Anonymous FSO: AIP Posts Not the Only Places Where FSOs Are At Risk

On June 4, we posted an excerpt from a USIP interview of an FSO who served at an Iraq PRT (read Insider Quote: AIP Fatigue and a Little Hostility). That post generated the following comment, which I am reposting up front because the writer brings up important issues about the realities of service in the Foreign Service, particularly in the post 9/11 world.

Maybe there should be a little resentment from some quarters. The AIP posts aren’t the only places where FSOs put, or have put, themselves at risk to serve their country. Yes, we should honor and reward the service of FS personnel serving in AIP. But let’s not forget those who serve, or served, in other war zones.

Not to be morbid, but has anyone compared the mortality rate for USG personnel in stationed in Ciudad Juarez to those in Kabul and Baghdad? What “incentives” do we give people currently in the Mexican border posts or Yemen (where its so dangerous that Embassy personnel are not allowed to sleep in their homes)? Or until recently in Libya and Syria?

How about officers who’ve served in Angola, Congo, DROC, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe etc. Sierra Leone and Liberia were particular garden spots. Remember when President Taylor’s troops strafed Embassy Monrovia? How about the 50 mm shells embedded in the Ambassador’s desk in Freetown after the AFRC coup (or was it the Nigerian invasion, or the RUF coup, or the Strasser coup)? We had FS personnel staffing a makeshift Embassy in Sierra Leone when DOD would not let its people visit on TDY because it was too dangerous.

Bosnia. (Just the word is enough.)

When I was in Angola, our DOD colleagues were getting combat pay; that wasn’t too long after UNITA attacked the Embassy compound. When we hitched rides into the interior on 40 year old C-130s chartered to WFP, the pilots corkscrewed into landings to make it harder for anyone with a SAM to take aim.

And what about the FS personnel who’ve lost family members, including children, because of medical, safety, traffic conditions in third world posts. When we honor service at AIP above all else, we diminish the sacrifice of those who put themselves, and sometimes their families, at risk to serve the USA in other dangerous places.

Folks might remember that State’s personnel system fell into a crisis in the post Vietnam years. At the height of the CORDS program, more than 400 FSOs were in the field with the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program with over a hundred more were in language training.  According to Kopp and Gillespie, a number of those officers were “thoroughly dismayed” and left the service; those who remained with their operational skills received rapid advancement in their careers. But as they moved up the ranks, there were not enough positions to accommodate them all.  The up or out system had grown lax and midlevel officers resented the senior officers glut which frustrated the officers’ (many of them veterans of CORDS) chances for promotion.

A former FSO who recently wrote about the CORDS program (which he calls the Civil Operations and Revolutionary
Development Support) for the May 2012 issue of State Magazine, and who calls it as a success had the following tidbit:

At the FSO pre-employment oral exam, male applicants were told they stood every chance of going to war if accepted. Midcareer and senior FSOs were also sent to the front.[…] “You had a simple option,” he recalled. “If you were assigned to Vietnam and didn’t take it, you resigned your commission and left the service. It was as simple as that.”

It seems to me that early on in the Iraq War junior officers were sent to Baghdad straight out of FSI but that did not last long.  The vacancies in Iraq and Afghanistan and later Pakistan, as other assignments in the Foreign Service continued to be filled with volunteers (first tours excepted, of course).  There was that threat for “directed assignment” in 2007 with the accompanying brouhaha but that did not materialized. There was that “prime candidate” exercise, too, with letters sent out, but later died a natural bureaucratic death.

I’m tired digging up my yard to put up an edible garden today so I may be going around this in a convoluted way.  But what I think is a concern is the fracturing of the Foreign Service.  There have always been hardship and dangerous assignments in the Foreign Service.  But in the past, members of the FS can point to that collective experience of serving in places that were great, not so great, and really gadawful places on earth.  But in the years following our war of choice in Iraq, and our war of necessity in Afghanistan (I don’t know what you’d call what we’re doing in Pakistan, or Yemen, etc.), folks would be hard pressed to point to  one collective experience for all the Foreign Service.  Some FSOs with less than five years in the Foreign Service have already done two tours in the war zones. Some are heading to non war zones posts that are as perilous as any red zone.  Before too long, they will come back to a normal embassy operation, reporting in some cases to midlevel or senior officers who may have served in difficult assignments but have never done a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan where as one FSO calls it like “everything is rushing at you at 110 miles an hour.” How will that organizational relationship pans out?
Just a quick point while I’m thinking about this.  There is a distinction that is being made in the Foreign Service today: there are those who went to the war zones and there are those who did not. In a perfect world, one is either an effective officer or one is not. But we do not live in a perfect world.  Should a so-s0 Political Officer who goes to the war zone on a Hail Mary pass to get a promotion get all the carrots as opposed to a stellar Political Officer in say, the Marshall Islands?  Never mind asking why a stellar PolOff is in the Marshall Islands.  But — how does the system weigh mediocre performance in a war zone as opposed to a solid performance elsewhere in the worldwide available universe?
Then there’s this other thing.  The State Dept provides a lot of carrots to get people to go to the war zones and also hardship assignments. But the pool of volunteers is drying up. The world is getting more dangerous every day. The number of hardship and danger assignments is going up exponentially. The interviewee who talked about AIP fatigue and hostility has some unhappiness about getting the follow on or linked assignments nailed down.  Presumably, he is not the only one.
There won’t be enough carrots to go around, period.  And that will divide the Foreign Service as much as the war zone assignments.
Domani Spero

 

 

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5 responses

  1. Regarding AIP and other hardship posts you say: “But the pool of volunteers is drying up.” At least as to AIP entry-level positions that is far from true. When I did not get an AIP assignment in 2011, I was told that each position had seven people bidding on it.

    • Samantha, thanks for the note. I don’t have it handy but one of those oversight reports said it’s drying up. I don’t think it qualified the ranks of those volunteers, which give the impression that its across the board. The oversight report’s source was HR, and I’m sure the folks who told you each position has seven people bidding on it was also HR. That makes it interesting. I’ll have to dig up that report but the next couple of weeks are tough time wise.

  2. Actually, there aren’t enough carrots to begin with. DS does not do linked assignments AT ALL. One has to *hope* that everything will magically work out in the end, even though the officer leaves for the AIP tour having no idea where he/she and his/her family will go next. It could easily mean two moves in the space of a year.

    They have to bid quickly when the list comes out, but this does NOT mean assignments will be handed out promptly, as it depends on where you are in the scheme of things. Also, don’t forget that there are so few overseas DS positions the higher up you go, that a major incentive (to go back out/stay out) may not even be rewarded for an AIP post (or your *reward* may not be what you expect). It’s understandable (to an extent), but does not make the AIP tour easier to swallow, especially a second or third time around.

    We did things a little differently this year and bid concurrently on an out-year language and managed to nail it. We know where we are going next year, so that I can spend this year planning our move, etc. If we hadn’t bid concurrently, though, it could easily be another 4-5 months of not knowing where we might move next May – July, on the heels of 12 months of single parenting. Not exactly a reward for a second tour in a war zone, and I know most people end up having to do just that.

    • Thanks for enlightening me, Jen. I did not even realize that DS does not do linked assignments. And I forgot to add unaccompanied assignment in my original post. Will update later.