Part 9. Mid-career domestic assignment: AF/EX Post Management Officer
We returned to Washington in the fall of 2002. As soon as our tenant vacated the apartment we embarked on a major refurbishment project, resurfacing the hardwood floors, painting throughout, and a complete renovation of the kitchen. Meanwhile, the DC sniper was terrorizing the District and we were wishing we were back in West Africa. I had developed a nasty little habit of smoking cigarettes over the past several years, about a pack a week, nothing too intense, and decided to use the DC sniper craziness as an excuse to quit once and for all. Cold turkey. Piece of cake.
That summer we moved back to Washington to a post management officer (PMO) job in AF/EX — Anglophone and Lusophone West Africa, as originally assigned. But upon arrival, the deputy executive director told me I would be covering countries in East Africa, which included Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar and Mauritius. My prior assignments, Bissau, Luanda, and Accra, had all been west, so this region would present a new, unexplored set of challenges. I rolled up my sleeves, little knowing that, later, in retrospect, I would consider it my favorite all-time assignment and the most productive period of my foreign service career.
At work, I sat out to master the ropes of the Washington bureaucracy. We had major projects underway: new embassy buildings under construction in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; re-establishment of operations in Khartoum; and potential New Office Building (NOB) site search and selection projects for Djibouti, Asmara, and Antananarivo. In meeting after meeting, I came to understand and appreciate the thoughts and contributions of my counterparts in the Office of Building Operations (OBO), Information Resource Management (IRM) and Diplomatic Security (DS), and before long we were able to pick up the phone and unstick things, solving problems before they reached anybody’s notice. In the Spring I traveled with Under Secretary for Management Grant Green to Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam for the new embassy openings, then broke away for site visits to Khartoum, Addis Ababa and Asmara. I was scheduled for visits to Antananarivo, Kampala and Djibouti, but the Iraq war started when I got to Ethiopia and my boss phoned and told me to return home immediately.
We spent quite a bit of time back in the office on Khartoum. Early on the deputy director, John Sheely (a fabulous guy and a great boss, by the way. We were all lucky to have him as our immediate supervisor and mentor) directed me to organize a series of weekly meetings, cross-departmental, to come up with a strategy to restore full operations to Embassy Khartoum. Since evacuation and shutdown in the 90’s, American staff in Khartoum had been assigned to Nairobi and only made TDY visits to Khartoum, even though the local staff was still assigned. The situation worked very well for USAID, which was principally engaged in South Sudan (still part of Sudan at the time, though at war), a short flight from Nairobi.
During those weekly meetings, I managed to forge even stronger working relations with colleagues from DS, IRM, and OBO. The weekly meetings were always well attended, and I stayed late or came in early the next day to draft and send the meeting minutes and to-do items out to various offices. One of the weekly meetings was particularly rousing: we were coming close to closure on a way to restore unclassified and classified e-mail at the Khartoum chancery. Thanks to ideas from AF IT and logistics guru Steve Deutsch, we had a number of excellent ways forward to consider. Nonetheless, organizational lines were crossing and tempers were flaring. As host and erstwhile moderator, I lost control of the meeting due to all the bickering and turf defending between and across the various groups. Suddenly, without warning, I slammed my hand on the conference room table and said, in a firm but convincing voice, “We, here, today, in this conference room, must decide if Embassy Khartoum is going to be an Embassy of the United States of America, or a hole in the wall.” The room got silent. You could have heard a pin drop. And slowly, cooler heads prevailed and we found a way forward that satisfied the requirements of DS, OBO, IRM and AF/EX. There is nothing like bureaucratic success, or, as a Quaker friend always says, “the truth is in the room; you just have to allow it to emerge.”
That fall of 2003 we moved to 18th and G so our suite could be renovated. It would be the first ever renovation of AF/EX since the building was built in the 50’s. My boss, Jamie Agnew, masterminded the project from start to finish. I really came to admire Jamie and I enjoyed working for her. She remains one of my all-time favorite bosses, and being a PMO in AF/EX remains my favorite all-time jobs. I got a lot done for my posts and I learned a lot about the inner workings of the State machine, especially HR, OIG, OBO, and the A Bureau, bureaus whose operations affect people at post the most.
A few days into my second trip to the region, Ops found me to let me know about a death in the family, my aunt, Rebecca Hairston. Aunt Beck stepped in and became our mother figure when my mother died unexpectedly in 1975, so she had served as a mother figure for a longer time than did my actual mother. I was in Asmara when the call came, but luckily there was a flight to Europe the very next day. I changed my itinerary and returned home.
The second year in AF/EX was the year of evacuations. Abidjan, Bangui, Kinshasa, and Nairobi evacuations kept us all very busy. The Nairobi evacuation went on for almost six months! We nor any bureau had ever had an evacuation that lasted so long, and it created a number of complications for our office, for folks at post, for people assigned but evacuated, and for people “caught out.” Through our efforts we got changes made to the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) during and after the Nairobi evacuation to better accommodate evacuated families, their allowances, and their choices of safehaven. It was quite an accomplishment. The bureaucracy doesn’t like to change the FAM!
After the evacuation ended, we expended a lot of shoe leather on the Embassy Nairobi build-to-lease housing project, Rosalyn Ridge. OBO, Embassy Nairobi, and AF/EX were strong proponents. The AF Front Office was not on board, however. And DS waivered and for good reason – potential bad guys had line of sight access to the housing compound. Ultimately, a risk management regime was proposed and the project was approved and became the choice location for residential housing at Embassy Nairobi.
It was a very busy and eventful second year. But we had a great crew! My fellow PMO’s, Henry Kaminski, Doug Brown, and Barbara Gates were all just super people. Our deputy director, John Sheely, gave us all the guidance we needed, and lots of encouragement. And we got great support from the folks in the budget shop, in HR, the IT guys, and the GSO shop. I look back with fondness on my time in AF/EX; it was an extremely productive time in my career. Again, I will always maintain that being a post management officer was my all-time favorite job at State!
Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq