The Foreign Service has been taking a beating in the media over the whole directed-assignments issue. Much of what has been reported in the media has focused on inaccuracies and a few comments taken out of comments. The worst of them have questioned our courage, committment and patriotism. And as someone who joined the service after, and in no small part because of, 9-11, I resent it.
Here, according to AFSA, our employee association, are some of the facts, with my own comments in italics:
-- more than 2,000 FS members have volunteered for service in Iraq/Afghanistan over the past five years;
-- no one has had to be directed to serve in either war zone thus far;
-- this exercise is about a potential shortfall in volunteers for a relatively small number of positions in Iraq for summer 2008 (and I might add, these are NEW positions. The existing positions were all filled with volunteers);
-- well over 80 percent of the FS-designated positions in Iraq for summer 2008 have already been filled, eight months in advance;
-- Embassy Baghdad has a lower vacancy rate than almost any other U.S. embassy in the world (94% as opposed to 79% for the rest of the world, even as the Service is down by 20%...we are 11,500 strong and need an additional 2,094 officers to fill all of our positions and allow for a training float similar to that of the military);
-- most people in the Foreign Service spend the majority of their careers in
increasingly difficult and dangerous hardship posts (M and I volunteered for Jerusalem during the second intifada, and M served in Azerbaijan before that);
-- unlike the military, our members are courageously volunteering to serve as unarmed civilians in a combat zone;
-- our assignment system has always worked on a voluntary basis because FS
members take seriously their commitment to worldwide service;
-- when the Foreign Service is compared unfavorably with the military, we have attempted to note that the Foreign Service is less than one-half of one percent of the size of the U.S. military in personnel and budget (there are more army musicians than foreign service officers), and that we are stretched thin all over the world at the other 260 embassies and consulates that we staff , most of which are hardship posts. (And we ARE all over the world. More than 60% of the Foreign Service is "forward deployed," compared with about 20% of the military. So unlike the military, we don't automatically get sent back to the states or a European post after an overseas tour.)
I had two primary complaints about the directed assignments: that they had been almost exclusively targetting those who had already served in the region, leaving untouched those who had served in lesser hardship posts, and that they announced in the media before telling us. The second still annoys me, but the first that have corrected, with many of the "prime candidates" having never served in the Middle East. That is as it should be. We are supposed to be generalists. We are supposed to be able to work where ever the Department sends us...I would have no "regional experience" if they decided to send me to Mexico, but I would go.
And if they order me to Iraq, I will go. In a few years, depending on the health of some family members (the reason I don't volunteer now), I will probably volunteer. I think it is hypocritical for those outside either the Foreign Service or the military to question my patriotism. I have already put my life at risk to serve my country in a dangerous place. No doubt I will again.
Make no mistake. I may have concerns about the way some personnel issues are handled, but I am proud to be in the Service and I am proud of my service to the country.