USAID’s First War-Zone Related Suicide – Michael C. Dempsey, Rest in Peace

— By Domani Spero

On September 5, Gordon Lubold writing for Foreign Policy reported on USAID’s first known war-zone-related suicide and asks if America is doing enough to assist its relief workers. Excerpt below:

On Aug. 15, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that one of its employees had died suddenly. The agency didn’t mention that Michael C. Dempsey, a senior field program officer assigned as the leader of a civilian assistance team in eastern Afghanistan, killed himself four days earlier while home on extended medical leave. However, the medical examiner in Kent County, Michigan, confirmed to Foreign Policy that Dempsey had committed suicide by hanging himself in a hotel-room shower. His death is USAID’s first known suicide in a decade of work in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. And what makes the suicide particularly striking is that it came a year and three days after Dempsey’s close friend and colleague was killed in an improvised-explosive-device attack in Afghanistan.

Related posts:

More from Mr. Lobold’s A Death in the Family:

Shah left unspoken the issue of suicide that USAID must now confront. With Dempsey’s death as the first known suicide from either of USAID’s Afghanistan or Iraq programs, the suicide forces the agency to deal with an inescapable problem: how to help its employees who deploy to the same war zones as the military but who don’t always have access to the same kind of assistance. Civilian culture may not have the military’s taboo against seeking mental-health assistance, but unlike the Defense Department, which has struggled to arrest the vast suicide problem within its ranks, civilian agencies such as USAID and the State Department are governed by different privacy rules that hamstring those agencies as they try to help employees who may be suffering from post-traumatic anxiety, depression, or worse.
[…]
USAID has deployed more than 2,000 “direct hires” through Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. Many of them, like Dempsey, are considered “foreign service limited” (FSL) officers. That means they enjoy many of the same benefits of Foreign Service officers, but can’t be promoted or moved to other offices or departments. About 150 FSL officers are in Afghanistan currently. After each deployment, each one gets a “high-stress outbrief,” but due to privacy concerns, USAID isn’t able to contact any of them after they leave federal service to ensure that they aren’t suffering from deployment-related issues or other maladies, like alcohol abuse or depression. After a deployment, supervisors may only hear about those kinds of problems unofficially, through the bureaucratic grapevine, because of the way privacy regulations govern civilian agencies. And even then, if a problem is identified, USAID, unlike the Defense Department, can’t force an employee to undergo treatment.

Click here for the memorial page of Michael Cameron Dempsey (May 26, 1980  –  August 11, 2013) where you may leave a note or share a photo with his family.

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Something about that “each one gets a “high-stress outbrief,” but due to privacy concerns, USAID isn’t able to contact any of them …” seem odd.

According to the State Department, Foreign Service and Civil Service employees from the State Department and USAID who have spent more than 90 days in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, or Libya are required to attend its High-stress Assignment Outbriefing Program. Any State employee serving at any high stress post is also highly encouraged to attend.

However, a review of the program by State/OIG in July 2010 indicates that fewer than 60 percent of returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan for whom this is mandatory attend the High Stress Assignment Outbrief.   Apparently, very few employees from other high stress posts for whom it is voluntary take it.  State/OIG also stated that “If efforts to increase attendance fail, the Department will need to adopt stronger measures and a follow-up mechanism.”  Now, why would State/OIG propose the adoption of stronger measures to increase the Outbrief attendance if there were “privacy concerns?”

In any case, the Outbrief is mandatory but more than 40% of returnees mandated to attend it do not take it. FSI’s Transition Center admits that “compliance remains a difficult issue:”

“Compliance remains a difficult issue. While the program has received support and validation from a number of internal and external stakeholders, the unique requirement of a post-deployment “de-brief” coupled with a cultural reluctance in the workforce to deal with mental health or stress related issues mitigate against full participation. Since the essence of the program is to provide help to returning employees – and their family members – more rigorous measures to ensure compliance were seen as undesirable (e.g., holding up onward assignments or limiting or temporarily suspending clearances) and counterproductive.”

In a recent document published in conjunction with a solicitation for a High Stress Assignment Outbrief provider also states that the Outbrief “is a two-way educational program” and it is “not a clinical session or intervention.”  Asked by potential provider about “sources/citations for the interviewing methodologies utilized in the High Stress Assignment Outbrief”, the official response is as follows:

“The interview methodology was developed by trainers and psychiatrists working for the Foreign Service Institute and the Office of Medical Services of the Department of State. The interview protocol is not designed as a therapeutic intervention; it’s purpose is to have participants reflect on their experiences, offer advice to the Department, and to provide a conduit for such aggregated information for Department decision makers.”

The Outbrief implementation guide posted by FSI’s Transition Center at fbo.gov also states that “the Department is responsible for keeping track of compliance” and that there is a need (for the selected provider) to make sure that “accurate records are kept of who attended, when, and where.”

In short —

The Outbrief is not/not a clinical session.

It is not/not a therapeutic intervention.

It is mandatory but not everyone attends it.

The Department kept accurate records of who attended it, where and when.

But due to “privacy concerns” USAID isn’t able to contact any of them to ensure that they are not suffering from deployment-related issues.

Also a new contract was awarded to a new Outbriefer in May 2013 for $46,400 (Base and Option Years Estimate).

You know, I’ve lost my brain today. I just don’t get this. If you’ve been through the Outbrief session would you kindly write me and help me understand how this is helpful to returnees from high stress-high threat assignments.

👀

 

 

 

 

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In the Foreign Service: Death, Too Close An Acquaintance

This past week saw the death of a member of a local guard force at the US Embassy in Ankara.  Nomads By Nature who blogs from Ankara writes that the guard who died when the suicide bomber detonated the bomb at the embassy entrance, Mustafa Akarsu was a 46-year-old security guard at the embassy.  He left behind a wife, an 18 year old son, and a 15 year old daughter. “He put duty ahead and confronted the bomber in that initial checkpoint, hollering out a warning to the others as he did so.

This has been a reality for the Foreign Service, not just for the American employees and family members but also for the locally hired employees, and host country police officers tasked to guard our people and diplomatic facilities overseas.  AFSA has a long list on its memorial plaque of American officers lost dating back to 1780 when William Palfrey was lost at sea.  We don’t think there is a memorial plaque just for local employees. We lost so many of them in Beirut one year, and more another year. We lost many more during the twin bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Since 2008, this blog has attempted to keep track of the violent deaths related to the State Department overseas.  Since we mostly worked through publicly available material, we are pretty confident that we have covered FS employee/family-related incidents (missing, suicide, attacks).  We are also sure our list covering local national casualties are incomplete because those do not always make the news.

Apologies if we missed anyone.  If you know anyone not listed below kindly please add the information in the comment section.

* * *

Feb 2013  – Mustafa Akarsu, Local Guard Force (Ankara, Turkey): investigation is still ongoing. Hurriyet Daily News has some additional details here.

Jan 2013 – Christopher “Norm” Bates, Foreign Service  (Johannesburg, South Africa): case is open and ongoing.

US Mission South Africa: FS Employee Christopher Bates Dead in Jo’burg

Nov 2012 – George Anikow, Foreign Service/EFM (Manila, Philippines): four alleged perpetrators are currently in Philippine court system.

US Embassy Manila:  George Anikow, Diplomatic Spouse Killed in Early Morning Altercation

October  2012 – Qassim Aklan, Foreign Service National (Sana’a, Yemen)

US Embassy Yemen: FSN Qassim Aklan Killed in Motorcycle Drive-by Shooting

 

Sept 2012

  • J. Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service (Benghazi, Libya)
  • Sean Smith, Foreign Service (Benghazi, Libya)
  • Tyrone Woods, Contractor (Benghazi, Libya)
  • Glen Doherty, Contractor (Benghazi, Libya)

Outrage! Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others killed in Benghazi, Libya

August 2012 – Ragaei Abdelfattah, USAID (Kunar, Afghanistan)

US Mission Afghanistan: USAID Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah, Four Others Killed, Two Wounded in Suicide Attack in Kunar

May 2012 – George Gaines, Foreign Service (Bridgetown, Barbados)

US Embassy Barbados: Death of the Regional Security Officer

February 2011 – Khairy Ramadan Aly, Foreign Service National (Cairo, Egypt)

US Embassy Cairo Local Employee Confirmed Dead with Three Bullet Holes

March 2010 –  Lesley A. Enriquez, Foreign Service National (Ciudad Juarez, Mexico): one gang leader extradited from Mexico

 

January 2010

  • Victoria DeLong, Foreign Service (Port-au-Prince, Haiti)
  • Laurence Wyllie, Foreign Service/EFM (Port-au-Prince, Haiti)
  • Baptiste Wyllie (5),  Foreign Service/EFM (Port-au-Prince, Haiti)
  • Evan Wyllie (7), Foreign Service/EFM (Port-au-Prince, Haiti)

State Dept Reports Death of FSO in Haiti Earthquake

Three FS Family Members Perished in Haiti Quake

September 2009 – James Hogan, Foreign Service (Curacao, Netherlands Antilles): still missing, more blog posts archived here.

James Hogan Case: A Royal Hurricane Shit Storm of Pain for All to Read

May 2009 Terrence Barnich, State Department  (Fallujah, Iraq)

US Embassy Baghdad Employees Killed by IED

February 2009 – Brian Adkins, Foreign Service (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia): a local man reportedly pleaded guilty to the murder but we have no information whether the murderer was sentenced.

One of Ours is Dead in Addis Ababa

January 2008 

  • John M. Granville, USAID (Khartoum, Sudan): convicted murderers still at large
  • Abdel Rahman Abbas, USAID/FSN (Khartoum, Sudan) convicted murderers still at large

How much does a US diplomat’s life worth? About $1,800 US dollars, and look there’s no raging mob…

 

For the Foreign Service, the six degrees of separation is acutely much closer.  As such, death is often too close an acquaintance.

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Serbia’s Ambassador To NATO Jumps to Death From Multistory Building

Via NYT:

The Serbian ambassador to NATO, Branislav Milinkovic, jumped to his death from a multistory parking garage on Tuesday afternoon at the Brussels airport, diplomats said Wednesday.

Mr. Milinkovic, 52, a respected diplomat, lawyer and intellectual appointed to the ambassadorship in 2009, was at the airport to meet a visiting Serbian delegation, officials said. B92, an independent broadcaster in Belgrade, Serbia, reported that the country’s assistant foreign minister, Zoran Vujic, was with Mr. Milinkovic at the time and witnessed his death.

Serbian officials said that the motive was not known, and that Mr. Milinkovic gave no sign of what he intended in the moments before he leapt to his death.

PSA from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

Every year, millions of Americans are directly affected by the more than 37,000 suicides and hundreds of thousands of suicide attempts made by friends or loved ones.

The following signs may mean someone is at risk for suicide. The risk of suicide is greater if a behavior is new or has increased and if it seems related to a painful event, loss, or change. If you or someone you know exhibits any of these signs, seek help as soon as possible by calling the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

  •     Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves.
  •     Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun
  •     Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  •     Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
  •     Talking about being a burden to others.
  •     Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
  •     Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
  •     Sleeping too little or too much.
  •     Withdrawing or isolating themselves.
  •     Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
  •     Displaying extreme mood swings.

– DS