The Death of a Foreign Service Officer

When I heard the initial reports that a State Department employee had been killed in Afghanistan, I sighed. And when I read the name and what I felt was a thoughtful message from the Secretary, I did what I suspect many of us do these days: I looked up the officer’s name on Facebook, guessing that someone young and in a place like Afghanistan was bound to have an account, a presence, through which she would share her experiences with her friends. I clicked on her name, saw her face, and realized that I knew her.

Or perhaps I didn’t know her, but only knew that I had seen her before. Seen her in the half-remembered days in-between my own assignments overseas. Seen her somewhere in the District or in Arlington at a ritualistic gathering of FSOs in a rented corporate apartment, drinks scattered on poorly made tables of blond wood or on pool furniture badly in need of new paint.  Seen her from time among bottles of continually passed-on wine and bags of snacks from Trader Joe’s and vegetable dips from Whole Foods, or standing in line in cafeterias. What I knew as well were the rhythms of her life as a Foreign Service Officer, that we had likely shared the same locations (airports, baggage carousels, shuttle buses) and dislocations (first nights in strange lands, language struggles, loneliness).

That is what I think I recognized. What I am certain I recognized was the smile, the aura of the under-30 crowd, the disarming ordinariness (as opposed to banality) and eagerness of our newest public servants. That aura seems to me the norm now at Foggy Bottom, and in much of the country, and it’s probably a sign of my age as much as an indication of the lure of Washington itself.

The truth is I didn’t know her, and make all sorts of assumptions, but from the few pictures she had posted (that were too heartbreaking to look at closely), I felt that she enjoyed a good evening out at one of DC’s many ale houses, or on trips to far-off cities that had been made much closer by her job.

And I saw too her own words beneath a posting, saying that she was looking forward to “shenanigans” when she was back in DC for training this coming July.

Shenanigans. Perhaps best defined as the line between youth and one’s mid-30s.

It was then that her death hit home, for she was also an officer in a position similar to one I had been in in the not too distant past. When, I recall, I rode in helicopters across contested valleys, and walked among both friends and probable enemies in markets and crowded spaces. When I entered a caravan noting the armored weight of the vehicle doors or felt the unsatisfying vibrations as we lifted off the ground from an airbase. When I thought daily, despite the importance and thrill of the work I was doing, about the moment I would come home.

What was new for me today, reading of the sad incomplete events and seeing her face, was that I, at the ripe old age of 13 years in the Foreign Service, could have been the one who made the decision to send her on the assignment, a public school book donation project in a province away from the capital. I could have been the one to sit with her and other colleagues some days earlier to discuss the strategy, the visuals, the preparations and coordination with the local government. This is because I’ve become a manager as I’ve moved along my career, as is the custom in the Foreign Service, and it would have been my job to make daily assignments, to direct our support, and to mentor and advise newer colleagues, like her. This thought brought its own heaviness. And so this time, for me, it was not enough to post a brief Facebook comment, or only change my profile photo to the black ribbon that perhaps too easily replaces our true sorrow.

I have been returning often of late to essays that seem to mock us about our shortened attention spans, our lost ability to write and speak in meaningful words, and our habit of ingesting bits of information and then moving on too quickly.

But there are too many parallels in her death with my life.  And more importantly, there are likely people I love, or have loved, or who I simply call friends, who are an arbitrary moment away from a tragedy like this. This young woman, this Foreign Service Officer, the whole of us, deserve just a little bit more reflection.