The Short End of the Stick

Foreign Service LifeInspirationWashington, DC
February 27, 2011

The Foreign Service community is currently abuzz over a potential 16% cut in pay that is proposed for the 2011 Federal budget.  While the Diplomatic lifestyle often gets glamorized, what we often fail to talk about are the hardships that come with living overseas.  Foreign Service Officers(FSOs)/Diplomats place themselves and their families in potential danger for the risk of serving their country, no different than a Military Officer would do.  It is not all fun and games, we just don’t tend to dwell on what we give up or what may or may not happen.  We know the risks we are taking on and do so with pride.  U.S. Diplomats are fiercely passionate about the work they do.  This is not a default government job they ended up in, it’s a calling.

This pay cut (the money was just added in 2010 to EQUALIZE the gap between State and other agencies and would now be taken away) discredits the important work that FSO’s are doing overseas.  It penalizes them for choosing to serve overseas and makes day-to-day living more challenging since spousal employment opportunities are limited at many posts (which forces most families to live on the FSO’s income alone).

In the wake of this decision, many FSO’s around the World are writing to their congresspeople about the realities of serving overseas.  I was particularly moved by Four Globetrotter‘s account of all she’s been through in the last 10 years.  She and her family embody the courage and resilient spirit that I’ve found to be the norm among Foreign Service Families.  I hope you will take a minute to read her story and understand more thoroughly what it is that happens at our Embassies overseas.  It truly is incredible work that I am proud to be associated with.


Dear Rep./Senator:

My name is [Four Globetrotters] and I am a State Department Foreign Service Officer in the United States Foreign Service.  I joined the Foreign Service in 2001 and have served in Uganda, Togo, Nigeria and Washington, D.C, and am currently posted in Tunisia. I am also your constituent, and it is in that capacity that I reach out to you now to ask for your help.

I, like all of my colleagues, support efforts to eliminate wasteful and unnecessary spending across all our federal agencies as part of the effort to reduce our national deficit.  I understand why we will not be receiving cost of living adjustments over the next two fiscal years.  However, I am concerned by current legislative proposals that call for reversing a carefully considered bi-partisan plan to modernize the pay system of the Foreign Service that is in the process of being implemented.  I have to assume that it is because our mission and our sacrifices are not sufficiently known to Americans, and even to our own representatives in Congress.  To that end, I would like to share part of my story.

I swore in to the Foreign Service two days after graduating from college summa cum laude with a degree in Political Science.  I passed on a number of other opportunities because I knew, and have always known, that I wanted to be in the Foreign Service.  It was an easy decision for me, after all I was raised in the Foreign Service and followed my parents around the world from the age of three.

I was supposed to fly out to my first post — Kampala, Uganda — the afternoon of September 11, 2001.  On that day, the world changed, and I changed too.  I lost my youthful idealism as I sat on a hill at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia.  I watched the smoke billow from the Pentagon just a few miles away while my suitcases sat next to me — I had checked out of my hotel early that morning.   I knew then, more than ever, that I had to be overseas.  It was only through changing the hearts and minds of the world that something like this could be prevented from ever happening again.  My colleagues and I embraced this newly defined mission.

Over the course of the past ten years I, like many of my colleagues, have sacrificed, and it is those sacrifices that I would like to share with you.  I missed countless school recitals and parent teacher meetings while doing things like accompanying then-Secretary of Treasury Paul O’Neill to an AIDS orphanage or serving as control officer for a CODEL.  I feared for my daughter’s life as I tried desperately to reach our medical personnel located in another country when she, then one, developed amoebic dysentery and had diapers full of blood.  I held my son when he was three years old and had raging nightmares brought about by the mefloquine that we were required to give him to prevent cerebral malaria.   I spent months separated from my children when I was dispatched to Sudan to assist the mission there.  I celebrated my 30th birthday in Darfur.

I spent my first Christmas in the Foreign Service at the morgue identifying the body of an American citizen who had been killed in a home invasion.  I spent another Christmas in the putrid morgues of a small sub-Saharan African country searching frantically for the wife and two children (ages 4 and 7) of an American citizen who had been aboard an aircraft that crashed upon take off.  I loaded my children onto a plane bound for Sierra Leone –where my parents were stationed — when the situation in Togo, my second post, devolved rapidly after the death of President Eyadema.  We may actually be the only people ever to evacuate family to Sierra Leone.

When a member of Congress and her staff were abandoned during this unrest at a downtown hotel by their Government of Togo hosts, I was the only American besides my then-husband, the Regional Security Officer, who could drive an armored vehicle.  The Ambassador dispatched me, and I drove through barricades and crowds to reach her and her staff and transport them safely to the Embassy.  My husband couldn’t go because he was off responding to a distress call from one of our Embassy families.  Their house was being invaded.

The mother and two children were holed up in the safehaven  while a frenzied group of thugs destroyed their home and personal belongings and worked to break into the safehaven where they were hiding.  All of us at the Embassy listened as the frantic calls for help came in over the radio, the children crying in the background.  My colleague wept as he heard his wife and children, helpless.  My husband knew he had to try and help, even though it would come at great personal danger.  He arrived at the house, unarmed due to a policy that did not permit him to carry his service weapon, and engaged at least two dozen thugs.  Relying on his training as a former marine, he quickly disarmed one person and used that weapon to disperse the remaining looters.  There is no doubt in my mind that had it not been for his intervention, the wife would have been raped or worse, and there is no telling what would have happened to the two children.  I waited, bordering on hysteria, by the radio to hear that my husband was okay and that our three children would not be left without a father.  He rightfully received the State Department’s Heroism Award for his actions on that day.

I, like countless of my colleagues, have defended the United States and had close encounters with those who wanted to do us harm.  I remember vividly the day I, a second-tour junior officer, gazed across the bullet proof consular window at a young Nigerian man who simply wanted to go the United States to “visit”.  I determined he did not meet the standards to qualify for a visa to the United States, and denied him.  His name was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a.k.a the underwear bomber.

Most recently, my children and I returned from Morocco where we were safehavened following the uprising in Tunisia.  During that uprising three of my colleagues — a married couple and a single woman — had their houses looted and both residences are uninhabitable.  They lost thousands of dollars of personal property.  Those losses are not covered by their insurance.   At the height of the revolution, the streets were packed  with rioters, soldiers and tanks.  Every night for a week my children cowered in a corner listening to the shooting going on around us.  There is no 911 over here.  If people had chosen to attack our home we — a single mom with three children — would have been helpless.  Our own armored security vehicles were unable to respond to distress calls.  When I was finally able to drive to the Embassy for our evacuation flight, I was stopped at a military check point and had a rifle pointed at my head by an overly eager young soldier.

The Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 was adopted as a way to reduce the government-wide disparity between the public and private sectors and is a basic component of salary for all civilian Federal employees, based on annual survey data collected by the Department of Labor.  As a result of this law, every federal government employee working in the United States received “locality pay” as part of their salary.  Until 2009, the only United States government civilian employees who did not receive this part of their salary were entry-level and mid-level Foreign Service personnel serving their country overseas.  All others, including senior level State Department officers, and other agencies represented overseas, such as CIA officers under State Department cover, DOJ and DHS, have locality pay factored into their base salary.

Locality pay for Foreign Service personnel and other federal employees serving in Washington, D.C. is now approximately 25%.  Under the law prior to 2009, Foreign Service personnel serving abroad sacrificed this part of their salaries and took large pay cuts to their base salaries.  Those posted in Washington earned more money than colleagues posted in Pakistan, Yemen, and Beirut to name a few.  As a result, because retirement packages are based upon base pay (including “locality pay”), Foreign Service officers representing their country abroad received smaller retirement packages than their colleagues who stayed in Washington. This was not sustainable and in 2009 a bi-partisan solution was found to correct this policy problem. Closing the pay gap is not a pay raise — it is a correction of a 17- year-old unintended inequity in the worldwide Foreign Service pay schedule—an inequity that grew every year.

Today thousands of Foreign Service employees serve in hardship assignments around the globe, which now constitute nearly 60% of all posts.  As I write this letter, my colleagues in neighboring Libya, including one colleague who is eight and a half months pregnant, have just evacuated and our Embassy there has been closed.  The number of unaccompanied posts has increased more than fivefold in the decade since I took the Foreign Service Officer’s oath and received my commission.   Our oath is pretty similar to another oath I know you are familiar with:

“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

Assignments overseas are increasingly challenging, difficult and in many instances, dangerous.  There has been strong bipartisan recognition that it is time to invest in diplomacy and development.  Penalizing Foreign Service employees — specifically those of us at the junior and mid-level — whose mission is to serve overseas to advance and protect our national interests by cutting our base pay undervalues the importance of our work, widens the gap between those of us serving in the United States and those of us facing hardships and sacrifices overseas and creates real disincentives to serving on the front lines of American diplomacy and development.

I am proud to be a public servant and honored to be a member of our State Department Foreign Service.  I hope that you will support the Foreign Service and help ensure that we are not penalized for our service overseas.


Four Globetrotters

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  1. Joyce says:

    Wow, we should all write our stories. I have to admit though that this family, for some reason, has been through more harrowing adventures and danger than we had in 25 years. But I know there are more like that out there. Hope it helps! Go hard working FS people.

  2. sarahlynn60 says:

    I know, Nick and I hope we don’t attract quite so much intensity in our experience…. and yes, you should write out your story!

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