Remembering who you are when you are far from home


I began my first United States Embassy tour as a junior Major fresh out of the Foreign Area Officer training pipeline, with a young child and a pregnant wife; and straight into one of the most strategic posts for a Combatant Command. I had no clue as to the challenges ahead of me, and my first six months of the tour would be the hardest time of my military career. I have survived numerous improvised explosive devices (IED) in Iraq, one with several injuries to my body, and also several small arms ambushes in Afghanistan. Neither the IEDs in Iraq nor the small arms ambushes in Afghanistan can ever be compared to the daily stress ambushes and cultural shock I experienced in my first tour. The tour began with a family separation due to a pregnancy, an attempt to fire me by a general officer, almost fainting while giving the opening statements during the Marine Corps Ball, and ended with the most in-depth self-evaluation I have ever done.

My first post was XXX, and XXX taught me how to manage my life; my marriage and family; and my work. XXX taught me how to appreciate and separate all of them. I left that post a better person, a better military officer, and a young diplomat. I also left that post slightly angry, and it made me question whether I wanted to continue in the U.S. Army and the Foreign Area Officer Corps. It was not an easy road and has taken up to three to four years afterward to honestly evaluate my actions, my decisions, other person’s decisions, and activities; and the lessons I learned in those short two years, especially in the first six months.

It all started immediately upon my arrival

I arrived in XXX, and within three hours I was in my uniform on a foreign partner’s vessel at the port. I literally moved my luggage into my house and put my uniform on. It was July and around 100 degrees at nine o’clock at night. I was jet-lagged and not ready to be speaking a foreign language. I was excited but overly overwhelmed. As I settled into my new job the next couple of weeks I would soon be confronted with the three biggest obstacles I would have to learn to overcome: cabin fever, irrational behavior, and haters.

The Embassy experienced a period of potential threats, and I was restricted for several days to my housing area, except for grocery store trips. Luckily my household goods had arrived the day before, but unluckily the internet was anything to be desired. The first three days were filled with the joy of unpacking my things and putting the house together, guessing the entire time of where my wife would want them set. The next five days were spent reading a lot and working around the house as much as you can over five days. It was as if I was in my own prison without a regiment. I quickly began sleeping irregular hours and drinking as much as I wanted. Homestay is not something I was prepared to do overseas.

During the first month, I was introduced to my counterpart with our partner nation. He was young, extremely well connected, and commanded my attention directly. He was also full of what I viewed as extreme irrational behavior/mood swings. I spent a considerable amount of my time talking to my locally employed staff about his behavior, what it meant, and then thinking about how best to address the newest demand, denial, or change to our agreements. This man single-handedly changed my approach to being a Foreign Area Officer. Before meeting him and having to work with and through him, I was very much an Infantry Officer with a mission, and I never said no to anyone. I was told what I was to accomplish and I went and did it. Now to achieve my mission, I had to work with someone who was either bi-polar, extremely cunning for his age, as lost in the sauce as I was or a drug addict. I sometimes think all of those applied.

The combination of the two of us at the same point in both of our careers had to have been either comical, distressful, or of amusement for our elders and staff. It got to the point where I slightly threatened to cancel something then just left the meeting and the headquarters, and I may have broken a coffee cup on the floor in the process. I got in my vehicle and cussed him the whole way to the Embassy promising myself I was going to make him crawl back to me and apologize. After struggling to meet with him once every two weeks for the next two months, he invited me to meet with him twice in one week. We had breakfast for the first time, and I gave him a U.S. Army coffee mug to replace the one I broke. It was cordial, but I did not eat the liver they presented me. I ate the bread and a lot of coffee in the new U.S. Army mug. I think we both learned a lot from each other, but neither of us ever acknowledged it. He continued to call me at 2 am, and I continued to ignore his calls. The next day when we met after one of his 2 am calls, we acted as if he’d never called. It would take a year before I just let go of his craziness and realized that no one else in the command knew this, nor did they care. He was my burden to carry, and so I did.

During this time, I was also introduced to the liaison officer working for the local Joint Task Force, who worked out of my office space and outranked me. He had already been there for a few months, spoke French fluently, and had nothing to do but spend time engaging everyone. He had a very self-centric agenda, which I did not realize until after the fire had started. He worked for and reported directly to a two-star general officer, and regularly spoke to everyone in the embassy every hour of every day. He was an extrovert with nothing to do but to ensure everyone loved him and hoped they told his boss how great of a job he was doing. Needless to say, we never got along. I never realized how much he was working behind my back to discredit me until the real drama started.

An attempt to fire me

You’ll never know all the conversations about you within the embassy, and you’ll never know what anyone actually thinks about you. True diplomats never show their hand – ever. Experienced ones allow others to give them information freely during a conversation by phone or email. Imagine that you are operating in the world of your office doing and struggling with a bipolar country contact, who is also meeting for breakfast once a week with the liaison officer of the JTF. This liaison officer has already told you every day for your first three months everything he thinks you should be doing with the partner nation because he was a prior AFRICA OSC (for one year –then fired). This resulted in a continuous drama filled backstabbing event where everyone preferred to duck into their corners before addressing the drama, as good leaders should.

Country teams do not deal with drama well, and they prefer to ignore it until the absolute last moment to address things. Knowing who the masters of the personnel you are working with are essential, especially when you have staff in your office space who seem not to like you. If you find yourself in this situation, you need to be utterly careful. Record everything in writing, write down what people say, write memorandums of record immediately after the meeting, do not become emotional, and lastly, do not send out a bunch of emails to the commands about the situation. Take the time to pull back from the situation, are you the problem (more than likely if you are you will never self-identify this), is your leadership the problem, etc. At the end of the day, if you’ve been doing the right thing, the right way, with integrity, then you should be alright. My situation found this end state, with limited affects on my career; however, it wasn’t fun or pleasant to go through.

Separated from my family

My son would arrive in another month in the United States, and I stressed over whether or not I would be there for the birth. Luckily we had the opportunity to move my wife next to her family, if something went wrong, there was someone there she could call. Whenever I got the call, it was a minimum of 28 hours travel time to get to her. I called my wife daily, but most often than not our conversations ended in some kind of argument. I was trying to solve her problems from thousands of miles away when I should have learned to be supportive and just listen to her. The time difference created a small window for us to communicate and any disturbance during that period created a potential issue. I had never been deployed while having a family, and yet after two deployments I found myself dealing with similar situations that my Soldiers were experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Being separated from your family always creates an incredible amount of stress.

Working in the hottest place on Earth

XXX is one of, if not the sole, hottest places on Earth. I was not physically prepared for the physical demand the environment would have on my body. The first six months there I think I was severely dehydrated most of the time. There are some medical issues with that, and I think it caused some lapses in my physical abilities and of course in my mental abilities. I was never as tired as I have ever been in life until I moved to XXX. Numerous times I took a nap in my office chair. Few things grow in the country without watering every day, which requires money. Everything is brown and dusty. Visually it is almost depressing. There is a reason they put plastic water bottles on the table when you view pictures of meetings in Africa. Everyone is always thirsty, especially the non-Africans. You are not in Kansas anymore; you need to understand your body will be changing to your new environment also.

Running the gauntlet every day

Driving overseas is stressful. It takes a particular personality, which is not most Americans to deal with the traffic, the noise of that traffic, and the consistent danger of hitting or being hit by someone. Someone from New York City or Los Angeles probably is highly prepared for traffic overseas, someone from North Carolina probably is not. Most cities in Africa have an aspect of “running the gauntlet” each day. In XXX, the traffic actually was excellent in comparison to the time of the commute – no more than 15 minutes maybe 20. The issue is the potential objects in the road. Those objects of the gauntlet could be soccer balls from the field next to the major thoroughfare, random people walking in the middle of the road, or the time of the week when everyone goes to the beach and just takes over the road because there is sand on each side of the road. I ran the gauntly every day on a motorcycle (by choice) and found it like I was playing Frogger when I was eight. It took me 15 minutes to get home, and an hour to relax afterward. Regularly people would throw themselves in front of my motorcycle because they knew I was an Expat. If I hit them, I was responsible for all of their medical bills. I learned to swerve like a champ. After a year it kind of became a game, almost a challenge for me.

I began to drink too much

I have always been a regular drinker coming from a family that shared the spirits regularly. I have drunk excessively during college and after deployments or national training rotations, but never before had it become an issue. After several months alone in a large house, including a period of cabin fever, I reverted to drinking a bit too much. I remember one morning I woke up on the couch with the television still playing and an Armed Forces Network commercial was playing that showed a private falling asleep with numerous beer bottles on the coffee table. I then looked at my coffee table – message received clear as day. I was the guy in the commercial! That was the first inclination that I was dealing with some issues and I needed to change my life. Although I didn’t attend as many cocktails as others in the Embassy crowd, I found that I drank more overseas than I usually do. It is something that should always be analyzed when you take an assignment. Everyone stress drinks overseas. Watch yourself.

Sitting on my couch

I remember one day some random person from the Combatant Command J4 called me on my work cell phone at 1500 hours and told me he needed me to get something cleared from the port customs office that day or it would expire and cost the U.S. government $250,000. As a young Major my “let’s get this accomplished” set in, and I worked hard for two hours to try to understand what was needed. I went home after sending a few emails and stressed over whether or not I had done enough to get this done. It apparently was not going to happen, but I worried excessively about what everyone thought about my efforts. I sat on my couch when I began to have issues breathing. The room started to spin…and I figured what the hell?

I was lucky to have a supportive family and several terrific friends to talk with about the issues I was going through, and they assisted me in identifying the problems I was encountering during my first tour. My problems were mainly those encountered adjusting to life as a Foreign Area Officer on their first assignment, and luckily I was aware enough to know I was heading down a potentially dark, dangerous, and career-ending course. Unfortunately, other Foreign Area Officers have not listened to the signs presented to them or have allowed their moral compass to fail them.

Other unacceptable behavior overseas

As a Foreign Area Officer assigned to a United States Embassy overseas you will work in a small office, mostly by yourself, and as far away from your Service’s flagpole than you have ever been before. You are not immune to the effects of culture shock and can do several things to counter its effects. However, unfortunately, some people forget to remember who they are when they are far from home.

Some of those people have violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice by cheating on their spouses, lying about whether or not they submitted a leave form, or submitted false receipts for expenses they never incurred during an official travel. Other’s have driven drunk with their government-owned vehicle, charged prohibited items on their government travel card, or entertained prostitutes. Some forget they live in government quarters and allow a non-authorized person to live there. Even worse some Foreign Area Officers have decided they could change their uniforms to their likings, or grow their hair out to a standard that is not in keeping with their Service’s requirements. Lastly, a few have forged false scores on their physical fitness or allowed themselves to become overweight. As a Foreign Area Officer overseas you represent the Secretary of the Department of Defense. If you wouldn’t do it in the Pentagon, don’t do it at your post.

What I learned from all of this

When working in a United States Embassy, you no longer have the team, squad, or any other large unit that you can fall into and stay within the norm. Your personality will show, and your flaws will be highlighted. You must manage yourself first as a Foreign Area Officer, and that includes not only your career but also your mental and physical self. In the larger units, you have worked with you may have been able to blend into the crowd, as a Foreign Area Officer you are no longer in a crowd – you are the crowd. When you visit the Chief of Defense of your partner nation or when the Secretary of State or Defense visits you represent the entire United States military as a sole person.

The first six months of my first tour taught me to manage my time, manage my stress levels, manage my subordinates, and remind myself every day of who I was representing. I learned that not everything was my responsibility, not everything would be my fault if I couldn’t assist the Combatant Command, and not everything had to be done today. I learned to push back a little with the partner nation and to prepare more for my meetings with them. I learned that it was alright not to have a drink at an event, and an occasional “drying out” was probably good. I learned to stop checking my email all the time and disconnect. This all helped me become the strategic political/military specialist that the Department of Defense trained me to be.

Finally, I learned that my reputation as a Foreign Area Officer was the most critical factor in the future of my career. My actions good or bad created that reputation for me. Please remember who you are when you are far from home because you represent the entire Foreign Area Officer Corps.

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