Dempsey: The last US Foreign Service wives living in Baghdad

A bright line divides one United States family from another. For Laura, Kristin and Tom, those dividing lines are the three parts of one company. When Laura and Kristin left the United States to…

Dempsey: The last US Foreign Service wives living in Baghdad

A bright line divides one United States family from another. For Laura, Kristin and Tom, those dividing lines are the three parts of one company.

When Laura and Kristin left the United States to become the managing directors of their own foundation in Nigeria, they came with a huge amount of American experience, entrepreneurship and commitment. They knew going in that they were going to be working hard, every day, for the good of their nation.

The question posed to them and any US government employee is whether such a life is consistent with their oaths of office, and whether it is consistent with the public good.

The answer that the majority of highly educated US Foreign Service officers have chosen, and continues to choose, is a clear “yes.”

And though they have not specified a time frame, they know that the time they will spend abroad is likely to be longer and more frequent than it has been during the careers of their immediate predecessors.

For Laura, Kristin and Tom, that means the US Government is building a government headquarters in Nigeria, its first-ever mission of foreign diplomatic representation, and the relentless demands that that is creating.

As more US diplomatic officers go to work for their nations or their hometowns, the associated costs increase, and the work they do becomes more and more expensive.

What is not known is how much longer they will be able to continue to work at their current salary, nor to “try and save up for retirement,” as their contract provision specifies.

Two other Americans with the same qualifying days and years of service have died in the line of duty. Jane, a 56-year-old career State Department staffer serving in the Legal Division, and Barbara, a 45-year-old Foreign Service officer serving as the embassy in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, worked only a short time before either became seriously ill or died as a result of military combat in an Iraq that was at that time a very unsafe place for Americans.

When the President of the United States called them to duty, both already had children at home with loved ones. Their spouses were home working full-time jobs. Both spouses said they would do the same, even if they no longer lived near home.

That seems to be the new normal: Kids needing immediate attention, careers remaining active, commitments to long-term caregiver spouses, midlife learning or learning needs that require travel, flexible work schedules, unpredictable schedules and costs.

A third problem that new Americans working in Iraq had to contend with is that Iraq was on the U.S. government’s list of countries that were no longer “free and independent” from terrorists.

The government’s Basic Standards for Security Reform includes country travel and missions as actions that can be subject to strict security procedures.

No one in the mission has the resources or training to carry that out, and for those that do, it is a harsh lesson that they face alone.

With those two issues now met in Iraq, one American family knew they would get another reprieve to work at a cause closer to home, and another family would get a very long reprieve from the stresses that women face in the world today.

Their wives can look forward to a long career in places like Egypt, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, countries that for the first time are represented on the UN Security Council.

The letters sent home to families from their spouses clearly include more emotional and difficult things than the needed decisions on travel, mission and career objectives.

One line particularly touched me: “While all you see is work, your home is not work. It is home, your natural home.”

Most of all, the letters are testimony to a bond that they hold for each other, and to the loss of the sense of direction and purpose that they and their careers and others around them would have experienced had they all lived in the same city.

I think it is the reason we have such a great Foreign Service and why we continue to attract so many such fine people: All of them are children of immigrants who came to this country looking for opportunity, as Americans do every day.

These skills and values are what America needs more of these days.

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