Thursday, December 26, 2013

Merry Christmas From Tallinn



I can't believe we are spending our last Christmas in Tallinn (and that I have still not managed to get a white Christmas out of this tour, since last year we were gone at Christmas and that is the only one of the three with snow!).

I will be sad to leave Estonia in about 7 months. This place is amazing, and I will always love it here.

And as much as I missed my family this year, I am glad to have spent Christmas with some of the amazing folks we have met here.

Christmas Eve was spent at one friend's house, with I think everyone from the embassy who is in town showing up at least for a bit.

And then yesterday, after a pancake breakfast courtesy of my awesome wife and lots of fun unwrapping the presents with the pets (seriously, the dog "helped" me unwrap my "Dog Shaming" calendar...how perfect is that!), we went and had dinner at another friend's house, together with her husband and four kids, another friend, her husband and child, and one more friend. It looked A LOT like Christmases with my big Catholic family!

Which made me a little more and a little less homesick.

The amazing thing about the Foreign Service is that while you don't lose your family of origin, you can a new, wonderful, large family of fellow Foreign Service folks. And we really come together as a family when we can't be home with our family of origin.

It is moments like these that I am certain keep me in the Foreign Service even when I would rather be home.

So Merry Christmas to you, my friends, family and Foreign Service family, where ever you are, from me, my wife and the pets.And may you have the most blessed of New Years.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Kralev: Once Expelled, Gay Diplomat thrives in Foreign Service

Apparently I missed this last month.

Nicholas Kralev, who wrote America's Other Army: the U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy, did an interview last week with Jan Krc, a diplomat who was expelled from the Foreign Service in 1983 for being gay and successfully fought to come back.He was able to rejoin in 1993 and is not the Public Affairs Officer at our embassy in Vienna (man would I love THAT job!).

You can watch the interview here.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Quite a Year

A wedding happened yesterday.

Such a wonderful, ordinary thing.

Except that it was two men getting married. Legally. In Utah.

Yesterday I shared this picture on Facebook, courtesy of Freedom to Marry.



It really illustrates what an extraordinary year this has been for marriage equality.

In one year, eight states (EIGHT!) have been added to the number of states with marriage equality. LGBT people can now legally marry in seventeen states. And more importantly, the Supreme Court on June 26 overturned a key portion of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, meaning marriages in those states are legal in the eyes of the federal government. Meaning my marriage was legal federally and my friends who had married non-Americans could apply for their spouses to become American. And some of them are already in the process of doing so. Deportations of legal spouses stopped. And my friends serving this country could plan to come home when they retire, home to the country they love with the spouse they love.

And now, a majority of Americans support the right of gays and lesbians to marry.

Quite a year indeed.

And then I woke this morning to discover that the picture I shared last night was wrong.

Because last night, Utah's constitutional ban on same-sex marriages was found by the court to violate the U.S. Constitution

(Which is huge, because it could ultimately result in the overturning of all of the constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. According the to article:

"[Judge] Shelby writes the issue of same-sex marriage is “politically charged in the current climate” and more so because the current law is in place as a result of referendum. However, Shelby rules that even a vote of the people can’t defy the U.S. Constitution.

“It is only under exceptional circumstances that a court interferes with such action,” Shelby writes. “But the legal issues presented in this lawsuit do not depend on whether Utah’s laws were the result of its legislature or a referendum, or whether the laws passed by the widest or smallest of margins. The question presented here depends instead on the Constitution itself, and on the interpretation of that document contained in binding precedent from the Supreme Court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

The judge concludes by drawing on the 1966 case of Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state bans on interracial marriage throughout the country, saying the defense in favor of these bans 50 years ago is the same the state provided for Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“For the reasons discussed above, the court finds these arguments as unpersuasive as the Supreme Court found them fifty years ago,” Shelby writes. “Anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and elsewhere were designed to, and did, deprive a targeted minority of the full measure of human dignity and liberty by denying them the freedom to marry the partner of their choice. Utah’s Amendment 3 achieves the same result.”")

And that court ruled there would be no stay, and LGBT people could marry immediately.

And one hour later, two men were married in Utah.

A simple, ordinary, beautiful, wonderful thing. In Utah.

The 18th state!

Once again, love wins.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Post DOMA update

There have been a couple of articles that I wanted to share with you about how we are chipping away at inequality.

The first is from the Social Security Administration, which according to an article in the Washington Blade, is now processing claims for death benefits for legally married same-sex spouses.

IF

...they are in a marriage equality state. Those not in a marriage equality state are having their applications put on hold.

You might remember some months ago they announced that they would process retirement benefits for legally-married same-sex spouses. This moves that process along to include death benefits.

Of course, in the land where separate is not equal, those in civil unions or domestic partnerships need not apply.

Second is an article this week in Huffington Post on what the DOMA ruling means for legally-married same-sex couples.

There are lots of ways where this ruling will save folks money. And couples are allowed to re-file for their returns from the last three years if that will result in a higher refund for them.

I don't think it will make much difference for us since we earn very similar salaries. But man do I wish that option had been around when I was still in grad school and my wife was working!

What it does mean for us though is that my days of doing our taxes are done. With property in three states, two of which don't have marriage equality, so having to file jointly for federal and one state and separately for the other...it makes my head hurt thinking about it.

And finally, I just wanted to share with you a link from Time magazine. They nominated Edith Windsor as a runner-up for their person of the year. I personally think she should have won. Her case, which resulted in DOMA being struck down, has certainly affected my life personally in many profound ways. 


Take time to watch both videos. 

They are beautiful. 

Love won.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Please support the Mustafa Akarsu Local Guard Force Support Act

You might remember a post I did a while back about Mustafa Akarsu.

He is the member of the local guard force in Ankara who was killed by a terrorist in February who was trying to blow up our embassy there. Many many lives were saved because of his bravery.

The Huffington Post wrote this of him:

"Men like Mustafa Akarsu, who are at work at any given hour of the day at over 250 embassies and consulates around the world, are much more than faceless figures in uniform standing inside guard booths. Their dedicated efforts enable American diplomats to operate freely and unencumbered by threat. They know that at any time they can bear the brunt of a terrorist strike against the embassy. The fact that the only people killed that fateful afternoon in Ankara was the bomber and Mustafa Akarsu was a testament to the training and courage that these guards display on a daily basis. Akarsu made the ultimate sacrifice so that the men and women he swore to protect would be safe from harm.

Mustafa Akarsu had grown to love the country whose distant outpost he protected. He felt a unique sense of pride working for the United States of America, and playing a role in its defense overseas. And, this always-smiling member of the local guard force at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara wanted his children to live the American dream. Before his death he had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa; the SIV is reserved only for those who have dedicated many years of service for the U.S. government. Akarsu's hope was to become an American citizen and he dreamed of sending his children to university in the United States. Because he was killed before his SIV could be issued, the status of that request -- the fulfillment of his dream -- is now up to the State Department and special political consideration."

The current policy is that any local employee who has worked for the U.S. Government for 15 years or more is eligible to become a U.S. citizen with his family. With 22 years of service, Mustafa was already eligible for the SIV, and in fact was in the process of finishing his application when he was killed defending Americans. He was killed on the brink of realizing his dream of becoming an American.

On April 26, 2013, Rep. McCaul, Michael T. [R-TX-10] also introduced the Mustafa Akarsu Local Guard Force Support Act. According to DiploPundit, the bill currently has 18 cosponsors. In June, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

The gist of the bill is this: The Mustafa Akarsu Local Guard Force Support Act "amends the Immigration and Nationality Act to provide special immigrant status for the surviving spouse or child of a U.S. government employee killed abroad in the line of duty, provided that: (1) the employee had performed faithful service for at least 15 years; and (2) the principal officer of a Foreign Service establishment (or, in the case of the American Institute of Taiwan, the Director) recommends, and the Secretary of State approves, the granting of such status. States that this Act shall be effective beginning on January 31, 2013, and shall have retroactive effect."

This bill is fundamentally and foremost about fairness. It is about honoring the lives and dreams of those who died for us. Please take a moment to contact your representatives and express your support for this bill, because believe it or not, there are those who are opposed to it.

Please do it today. It is the right thing to do.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Foreign Service Officer – Digger Diplomat

I did a short interview for International Relations Online on what it is like to be a Foreign Service Officer.

My favorite question they asked was:

Name three traits every successful Foreign Service Officer should have:

I said:

* flexibility (because the answer to most questions in the Foreign Service is “it depends”)
* reliability (the work we do matters, and if you don’t do it, it will fall on someone else),
*a good sense of humor (because a lot of what we do is stressful, and we get through it together by not taking ourselves too seriously).

You can find the full interview here.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Susan Rice: LGBT rights an essential part of U.S. foreign policy

It was not so long ago that our country was unwilling to sign on to demands that LGBT persecution end world wide.

It made me really proud to be serving when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Geneva that "Gay Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Gay Rights," adding that "people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens. This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing."

And that support for LGBT people worldwide has continued even after Secretary Clinton left, as is evidenced by the speech given yesterday by National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

“The United States remains firmly committed to promoting freedom, opportunity and prosperity everywhere,” Ambassador Rice said during a speech at the Newseum in downtown Washington, DC during Human Rights First’s annual Human Rights Summit on Wednesday. “We stand proudly for the rights of women, the LGBT community and minorities.”

“No one should face discrimination because of who they are or whom they love,” she said. “We’re working to lead internationally as we have domestically on LGBT issues.”

Rice noted the Obama administration supports “full equality” for LGBT Americans that includes the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” She also cited slain San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk and the late-former New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, who introduced the first federal gay rights bill in 1975, as among the “champions who fought to bring us closer to ideals” outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that members of the U.N. General Assembly approved 65 years ago this month.

“Continuing their work at home and expanding it around the globe is our great commission as inheritors of their legacy,” Rice said.

You can read a nice piece about her speech here in the Washington Blade.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Look! Evidence of the Administration's "War on Christianity"!

Or not.

There has been a good bit of nonsense floating around that we are closing our embassy to Vatican City. It has even been repeated by some in Congress who really ought to know better.

Yes, we are moving the building (which is not the same thing as closing...). Yes, it will be located on the compound with the U.S. Embassy to Italy. Just like our embassy to UN agencies in Rome is already located on the same compound.

The main reason for the move is security. There are many cities where we have more than one embassy. Rome is one. Vienna is another. I could name others. The independent Benghazi Accountability Review Board renewed calls for all missions located within one municipal area to be moved into the same compound. That is what is happening here.

And our embassy to Vatican City was not located in Vatican City (no room), but like the embassies of other countries to Vatican City, it was located in Rome. And the new embassy will actually be a tenth of a mile CLOSER to Vatican City.

And you know what else? The building is 78% bigger than the current building. AND, it is a lot nicer.

Old building on the left, new on the right.
Photo courtesy of blogs.state.gov
If you want to know more, I recommend you click here for "Just the Facts."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fine Whine

My apologies for my absence...I was in London for two weeks having surgery on my knees and blogging by iPad is...challenging.

Also challenging, having surgery on both of your knees.

One of the less fun parts of being in the Foreign Service can be receiving any kind of medical care. Unlike in the States, where if you have decent insurance you can get your medical issue dealt with fairly quickly, when you are overseas, it can take a while. So my surgery on the 14th was the culmination of months of pain, a useless visit with the Regional Medical Officer, a torn meniscus (actually torn in two places and cracked in a third), another couple weeks of pain, an appointment with an Estonian orthopedist (and a demonstration of how bad my Estonian medical vocabulary is), and then two and a half more weeks of waiting until we could get me to London for surgery.

Of course, once I got to London, the care was as good as any in the States. Maybe even better. The UK has socialized health care paid for by people's taxes. But on top of that, they have a private health care system that you can use if you have private insurance. We use the private system because we obviously don't pay taxes to the UK. And it was excellent.

I had an appointment the day after I arrived with a private doctor, and he then scheduled an MRI for a couple hours later. He recommended surgery on both knees, so we went to the embassy, who handled everything. They have an excellent medical unit that handled around 500 medical evacuations (medevacs) per year and they have it down to clockwork. We filled out all the forms, and because I was in the hospital overnight, the Department pays for everything and I reimburse them once I get reimbursed by my insurance.

Two days later, I was checked into the Princess Grace, a private hospital in London not far from the hotel where I stayed, also booked for me by the embassy. The hospital was great. You walk into a tidy waiting room, give them your name, and they come within five or so minutes to check you into your private room. Which includes a wine list. No, not kidding.


Told you I wasn't kidding
The room also had menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner (with a selection, including things like roasted pheasant that was actually awesome!), movies on demand (for free), and free wifi. An hour or so later, they came and got me, wheeled me into surgery and a split second later (okay a couple hours, but I was out, so it seemed like a split second), I was done. And I was on my feet by that evening.

Had all of this been done at home, or more quickly that how long it took here, I couldn't possibly have any complaints. But let me tell you that getting all that done is HARD when you are not at home. Even in England, which shares (sort of) our native language, it is still challenging. You aren't in your own environment. You don't know how best to get from place to place. You have to do things like get into cabs that are taller than most cars and the stepping into which causes your muscle to tear just a bit in your newly operated on knee (which then causes you to spend said cab ride curled up into a ball on the cab floor).

And you don't know when or whether you can return to work. Our job requires a medical clearance in addition to a security clearance. A class 1 clearance means you can work anywhere in the world. You have to have that to join the Foreign Service (because it wouldn't be fair to those already in the service to hire someone who could only serve in western Europe. We all have to do our time in hardship posts). When you go on medevac, your Class 1 clearance is suspended. And you can't return to post until it is restored. Now luckily, the medical unit at the embassy can do all the paperwork to restore your clearance if the doctor clears you, but the doctor's clearance is by no means assured. And if he does clear you, and you do go back to post, you can not go on medevac again from that post for that issue.

So if my knees for whatever reason don't heal, I am screwed. My only option would be to curtail from post (leave for good) and go back to DC. And hope there is a position for me there.

That is added stress on top of an already stressful situation.

The good news is I got my clearance back and I am home. The bad news is my knees are jacked and I will likely need replacements in the not too distance future. Other than repairing the meniscus, most of this was all as a stop gap to give me pain relief until I get them replaced in a year or so (hopefully much more than a year, but the cold, damp weather in Estonia makes them hurt so that I am not overly optimistic).

Also not especially fun to think about...metal knees in a career that has you going through airport security A LOT.

Hello, strip searches!



Thursday, November 21, 2013

Transgender Day of Remembrance


STATEMENT BY SECRETARY KERRY

Transgender Day of Remembrance

The State Department joins people around the world in marking Transgender Day of Remembrance, honoring the memory of lives lost to violence provoked by fear and hatred of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

We have made tremendous progress in advancing the rights of LGBT persons. But when people continue to be harassed, arrested and even killed simply because of who they are and who they love, we know that we still have hard work before us.

The sad truth is that in too many places, including the United States, transgender persons continue to face violence and discrimination on a daily basis.

In too many cases, crimes against LGBT persons, including murder, are not thoroughly investigated or prosecuted. Transgender persons are frequently denied medical care and public services. They still suffer discrimination in employment, education, and housing. Each of these episodes threatens our common humanity. Together, we pay a price when rights are trampled. And, together, we win when rights are protected.

That is why we are engaging diplomatically to address the specific challenges faced by transgender persons. And that’s why we will continue to urge other governments to protect all of their citizens regardless of their gender identity. Through the Global Equality Fund, we are increasing support to civil society organizations to combat bias-motivated violence targeting transgender persons.

The rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons are not special or separate or different. They are basic human rights. And human rights are universal, not negotiable.

On Transgender Day of Remembrance, we renew our commitment to ensuring that all persons are able to live safely, freely and with dignity, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Monday, November 04, 2013

And The Winner Is....


We got our number 1! I will be the next PAO in Pristina, Kosovo and my wife will be the Deputy Pol/Econ chief! We are thrilled!

See you in DC in July for language!

Saturday, November 02, 2013

I Won't (Air) Kiss and Tell

I have been fairly quiet about bidding recently, at least here.

But the truth is, we have gotten an air kiss.

For those not in the service, a handshake is what you get when you are formally offered an assignment. Handshakes can go out beginning Monday.

But sometimes (not always), posts and the bureau let you know ahead of time that you are who they want.

Remember passing notes in class? "I like you. Do you like me? Check Yes or No."

It is a lot like that.

Except it does more like "You are post's (or the Bureau's) leading candidate for position x. Can you tell us where we stand for you and whether you would accept a handshake if offered."

We call this (unofficially) an air kiss.

This air kiss is of course, only after you have offered to sell your soul AND your first born to get this, or any, job. After you have told them how much you love them and would do anything to come work there. Sometimes though, you have have said that to several places (I opt for the honesty is the best policy route, but some don't. Everyone is their number 1).

So anyway, my wife and I got air kisses both from post and from the bureau.

And we told them we would accept the jobs if offered.

But I can't air kiss and tell (okay, we did tell a few folks...), so stay tuned until Monday.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Not The Bees Knees

I wrote a long post a week ago or so about what has been going on lately. About how one of the things that sucks about being in the Foreign Service was occasionally the medical care.

But it sounded too whiny, so I could never bring myself to post it.

Suffice it to say, I have been lucky not to need medical treatment while overseas until now.

Estonia has good medical care, but often the medical care providers don't speak English all that well and my Estonian is lacking in medical vocabulary.

So I am going to London in a couple weeks (and probably for a couple weeks) to have surgery on my knees. And getting me to this point has involved months of pain, a visit with the Regional Medical Officer (who said I needed to stretch and that it was just age), an appointment finally with an Estonian orthopedist (that took three weeks to get) and a torn meniscus in the interim.

If I had been stateside, especially since I have good insurance, this would have been taken care of months ago.

But I chose instead to serve the country, a country that freezes my pay, calls me a parasite, and recently threatened not to pay me at all.

Dang...getting cranky again.

Let's blame the pain.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Winning American Spaces Style

Rathaus (City Hall) in Vienna, Austria
Thanks to the government reopening, training we had already paid for didn't have to be cancelled.

And so I was able to go to Vienna, Austria last week for an American Spaces workshop.

There are some 700 American Spaces worldwide (the link above says 820, but those include our Information Resource Centers (IRCs) that are for the most part no longer open to the public for security reasons).

American Spaces are often located in libraries and universities and are free and publicly accessible places where people can go to learn more about the United States. In a time when security concerns continue to increase, these spaces become more and more important as a means to reach foreign audiences.

In fact, during the shutdown, American Spaces were about our only form of outreach.

The folks who run these centers are usually not paid by us. They are librarians and library directors who do this because it provides a service to their patrons. And we do provide resources for the corners that those libraries might not have been able to afford otherwise, including lots of books and other materials. This year, I got a grant to buy web cams and projectors so that we could bring American speakers into the American Spaces virtually when it was not feasible time-wise or monetarily to bring them to the actual location. So it is a win-win.

All of this is to say I was really happy that this workshop went on, because we were able to send these folks who bear our message to their respective publics without financial compensation to Vienna to learn about more resources they can use and to share ideas. It was a fruitful few days and a nice treat on top. Again, win-win.

The workshop was actually cancelled one day before the government re-opened, fortunate timing because we were able to turn it back on quickly. And it was particularly useful for me as Public Affairs Officer because it gave me an opportunity to have the directors of all four of our American Spaces in Estonia in one place. I got to know them better, they got to know each other better, and we got to plan some future events. Lots of winning all around (and no Charlie Sheen in sight!).


Not related to the post other than that it is in Vienna and Halloween is coming...

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Fix

I was nearly in tears yesterday morning when I read that the House had passed the Senate's bill reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling.

Tears of relief.

I shouldn't feel that way about a job with the government. It is crazy that I, that we, have to worry about our government defaulting on the bills it has already agreed to. We aren't talking about budget cuts. Clearly there is some room there. We are talking about paying the money that the government has already borrowed and spent.

There should be security in loaning money to the federal government, just as there should be security in being a federal employee.

But there isn't anymore. That debt the U.S. has? That everyone says China holds? Well only just under a third of it is owned by foreign entities. More than a third is held in U.S. Government accounts. Most of the rest is held by a variety of investors, like mutual funds, pension funds, even the federal reserve. Oh wait, did I say mutual funds? Did you say you have one? Then yes, you too are a creditor of the federal government.

As am I. I hold government bonds in my portfolio, though not many because they are so secure, they aren't much risk. So they don't pay as much in return.

I considered selling my government stocks and bonds last week...because they no longer felt secure.

How crazy is that? How crazy is it that the U.S. government could no longer be considered the safe bet?

But it just isn't any more. Thanks for that, Congress.

So the shutdown is over, but the damage is done. One Senator speculated on what this has done to the "Republican Brand." I worry about what it has done to the American brand. Are people going to be less trusting that we are a safe investment? Probably. Are those affected by the shut down, those who were laid off or expected to be laid off, going to be willing to spend as freely even now that they are getting paid again? Probably not. And all of this is bad for the economy. Bad for America. That same Senator said it was time to put America before the Republican party. He is right and wrong. It is ALWAYS time to put our country ahead of our party. Always.

And they didn't do that even in the fix, because the fix is only temporary. We could go through this again in January, again in February.

I am sure I am not the only federal employee wondering whether it is worth it. Wondering whether service to a country that doesn't appreciate those who serve it is worth the risk. We love serving our country, but in choosing to do so, we traded the possible financial reward of the private sector for the job security of government work, and received neither.

So as I look around for my next assignment during bidding season, maybe I should look a little further afield, to jobs outside of government service. Because I am no longer sure I serve a trust-worthy employer.

And I am not sure what the fix is for that.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Crushing the Federal Workforce

I was thinking today about an article I saw in August on Federal News Radio. It was called "How long does it take to crush a federal employee?"

The article was written by Jeff Neal, who also runs ChiefHRO.com.

He makes some really good points in the article, written well before the shutdown, including:



"The fed-bashing has risen to unprecedented levels in recent years. Let's take an inventory. It has been 43 months (January 2010) since federal employees have received a general pay raise. Just this week the House voted to allow senior executives to be suspended without pay when accused of wrongdoing. Not found guilty of wrongdoing — just accused. They voted to allow anyone to record any conversation with a federal employee without the employee's consent. It isn't just one party either. A bipartisan majority voted to pass the "Stop Playing on Citizen's Cash Act" to restrict conference spending. Other bills are pending to cripple federal unions, deny feds' bonuses for outstanding performance, cut federal retirement benefits and more.

While that kind of rhetoric may be useful in politics, it is destructive for governance and the people who make up our government. These are not nameless, faceless bureaucrats. They are people. They have names. They have faces. They have families, feelings, hopes and dreams. They also have vital skills the government needs to operate effectively. More important for the government as an employer — they have choices and are free to leave. How long will it take before we crush the federal workforce? What happens if we do?

The damage has started already. Federal retirements are up and continuing to rise. Employee responses to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are showing increasing unhappiness. Virtually every question related to morale and engagement showed a decline from 2011 to 2012. Every chief human capital officer I've spoken with believes the numbers will be lower — much lower — in the next round of the survey."

I would bet he is right, especially with the shutdown.

He goes on to say:


"When I was HR director for the Defense Logistics Agency, we did extensive in-depth analysis of our employee survey data. One finding that stuck with me was how long it took new hires in a bad environment to become disillusioned with their jobs. One field office that had particularly bad ratings had great feedback from employees for the first two years. After that, the ratings dropped like a rock. Based on that admittedly limited data point, it appears it takes two years to crush an employee. After that, the damage becomes more difficult to repair. As the attitudes become more ingrained, they are harder to change. We cannot simply start giving pay raises again and stop bashing the workforce and expect everything to be right with the world again.

Study after study shows the corrosive effects of poor morale in the workplace. Productivity goes down, leave use goes up, discretionary effort goes down, and attention to detail is often non-existent. In her book "Good Company," author Laurie Bassi says, "The trademark of a worthy employer is the ability to masterfully manage the tension between employees as costs and employees as assets." I think that is a great standard — one that the federal government is failing to meet. The political battles today completely disregard the employees as assets and go beyond treating them as costs to the point where they are pawns in a political chess game. If we truly want to have a government that functions efficiently and effectively, it is time for the fed bashing to stop. Have the debates regarding the power and reach of government, but stop treating the federal workforce as though they are the problem. They are not, and they can only take so much before their spirit, dedication and willingness to serve are crushed beyond repair."

I am beginning to wonder whether we are there, or rapidly getting there, to that point where we are crushed beyond repair.

I feel it. My colleagues feel it.

None of us want to back to work, and the feeling is the same whether we are getting paid or not. Because you can only take so much of being told you are the problem before you say screw it and walk away. A lot of us are near that point. We are demoralized.

My wife and I were talking about that today at lunch. We both did well in school and came away thinking the world was our oyster. We could do anything we wanted. And we both ended up serving the country because we believed there was no higher calling. Our friends and families took higher paying jobs in the private sector and laughed at those who went the government service route. But we thought we were doing what was best for the country.

Now we are among the "excepted" employees (for a good explanation of exempt, excepted and furloughed employees situations, check out Jeff Neal's post Shutdown: It Could Get Worse Before It Gets Better.) We are getting paid, for the moment, but we know that will run out soon.

And it isn't just the money. Truthfully, my wife and I are squirrels. We have money in savings to last us some months before we would start being unable to pay our bills. It is just the constant battering from Congress and the public. We are excepted because our work can't stop during a shutdown for national security reasons. And during that time, we have to work, without pay, without being able to work for other companies, without being able to borrow from our retirement accounts. We are important enough to be prohibited from striking, but not important enough to be appreciated or paid for our efforts.

I kind of think that if this goes on further, we should strike. Yes, President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers, but I don't think they could fire all of us.

Maybe if we actually stopped working, instead of continuing this farce that allows the people who genuinely believe they don't need government to continue in that belief, they would stop playing around with people's lives. If we actually stopped working, they would see what a real government shutdown felt like and how much the government does for each and every citizen. OMG, what do you mean we can't fly because there are no TSA folks to screen us or air traffic controllers to keep the skies safe? What do you mean people are flooding across our borders because there is no one guarding them? What do you mean FEMA can't help us with this storm damage. What do you mean I can't get my social security check, my food stamps, my tax refund, etc. Etc. Etc. Yes, you paid for those services, but no one is paying those bills now. You may have paid your cable bill, but if the cable company doesn't pay its employees to come in and run things
, you aren't going to still get to watch Showtime.

Maybe people would realize that if we actually stopped working.

But of course we can't do that. Because we are took important to be allowed to.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Waiting Game

So now the waiting begins.

Those who know me know waiting patiently is my special talent.

I'll give you a minute to stop laughing.

It seems like I am waiting for just about everything at the moment.

Waiting to see how much longer we will get paid.

Waiting to see if Congress will reopen the government (side note: the media needs to stop calling it a partial shutdown. The reason it is "partial" is because lots of folks are working without pay).

Waiting to see if they will drive our country's economy over the cliff by not raising the debt ceiling.

And, of course, waiting for our onward assignment.

All bids were due yesterday. I had mine in early, but of course, I did a bit of last minute lobbying yesterday and will do an interview on Wednesday for a job that was just added to the list this past week and jumped immediately to my core bids.

I have been talking with friends who are in the same position, hoping for some clarity. Hoping for an "air kiss" until announcements can be made, begrudging those who practically got french kissed ("Don't accept a handshake from anyone else without talking to us first).

I want some of that.

Our top choice isn't looking good. We got a "you're on our radar" but that they really don't want to bring in a stretch candidate (you can bid on a job that is one grade above your rank if it is a hardship post, and for bidding purposes, you are considered to be that higher rank. But the truth is that they will likely go through all the others at that actual rank before really considering you.

Our second choice looks better, and really, it was never second by much. I hear great things about the incoming Ambassador, and he sounds like someone I would love to work for. But there, I got a "you are a very strong candidate," which isn't even an air kiss. In fact, it isn't even telling us we are on the short list. But again, we aren't supposed to be told we are short listed until Tuesday.

So we wait.


Many of my friends are in the same boat, and clearly feeling the same way. 

On Facebook last night I wrote: "Bidding reminds me of when I was a kid in gym class, waiting to be picked for some team, and fearing I'd be picked last."

And my friends were quick to respond:


Friend 1: And the game is dodge ball.


Friend 2: Even worse, because you don't know what the game will really be, who will be on your team when you get there, or even who, exactly, is making the decision.


Friend 3: it's worse cause you don't even know if they've secretly given away all the slots on the team!

And all that was in addition to responses of "Word," "Exactly," and a plea to just put us back on directed assignments. 


So we all wait.

There are some DC jobs that look good too, but ideally we would like to go back to DC just for a year of language and then come back overseas. The work here is more fun.

Plus, overseas, the political noise is a little quieter. You don't hear the constant news about the constant fighting between the political parties and the two sides of our ideologically divided country.

You have to wait to hear it. And mostly, I am okay with waiting for that.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

We Interrupt This Shutdown For....

Nothing.

Apparently it is never going to end. Or at least not before we drive the world economy over a cliff.

Sorry, this whole issue is getting the better of my normally cheery disposition. (I'll wait for you to stop laughing).

You know what doesn't get interrupted by the shutdown?

Apparently, a "right-sizing team."

That should be fun. Sigh. Do they ever right-size you up? Because really, our embassy needs more people, not fewer. Illness, pregnancy, curtailments all affect us profoundly because we are so small and so understaffed. We have regularly been told (and not by ourselves) we need another pol/econ officer and another PD FSN. But I don't expect that to come from this.

You know what else doesn't stop for the shutdown?

BIDDING! (I picture you reading that with a Charlie Sheen imitation in your head, and like him, it doesn't sound like winning even if you say it enthusiastically enough.)

Bids are still due on Friday.

I suppose they might as well be, since there isn't a lot else in PD land that we can do at the moment. NO outreach. None. It is depressing...especially since I really like outreach. I also can't plan for the future because we have no idea what the future will hold.

But I am caught up on all the references I had to give for other people who have asked me to do one for their bidding. I hope they are all caught up on mine.

A lot of people in the Department are beginning to do the dance we do at bidding. I like you. Do you like me? Do you like like me or just like me?

But we use difference words. Where does our post rank for you? You are on our short list. You are definitely in contention.

God I hate this (but if you have been reading this blog for more than five minutes, you knew that already. If you are interested, you can always read this post or any of the 21 other posts I have written with the "bidding" label on them. And probably more I forgot to label.). And making it bad this time is that the bureau I am in and hope to stay in for another tour (EUR, or the European Affairs Bureau) is apparently playing by the book. No air kisses until after the bids are in. No telling people even so much as that they are on post's short list. And EUR posts are three of my six core bids (not western Europe mind you...we were looking for hardship so my bids are on places further east).

As a mid-level officer, you are required to bid on six "core" positions, that is, six jobs that are "at grade" (at your rank, or, if the post is a hardship post, up to one rank higher than your current rank) and "in cone" (in your career track. For me, obviously, that is Public Diplomacy. But "interfunctional" jobs also count as "in cone" for everyone). Now just because you bid on those core doesn't mean you can't bid on other jobs too. You can bid on jobs higher than your rank at non-hardship posts (or posts that aren't quite hard enough, like Tallinn) but you will have to wait an extra two months to learn your assignment because they have to give preference to those at grade/in cone folks. You can also bid on jobs that are not in your career track, but again, in cone folks get preference. So when I was bidding to come here, I had my six core bids, but I didn't reach out to any of the folks making the decisions for those jobs (a process called lobbying) because I wanted this one. It was frankly terrifying. Because it is a risk...you will end up with a job eventually (which is the ONLY thing that sets bidding apart from a regular job hunt, otherwise, the resumes, the interviews, the nail biting, all the same), but it could be a crappy job working for a monster in Ickystan.

This time, I am actually trying for the jobs that I have listed as my core bids. So theoretically, I will know my next assignment come November. But that is if I get one of those core jobs, or one of the other jobs I put on my list because they would also be fine with me. Since three of my core bids (and one non-core) are all in EUR, I have lobbied the bureau and told them what my priorities are. The main one being, I want to be assigned to the same post as my wife. Then all things being equal, there are two posts in eastern Europe we are interested in and two jobs in DC (tandems often go back and forth between DC and overseas because it is easier to find jobs in DC and easier to lobby for overseas jobs from there).

At this point, I don't even know what I want. My head says I want one of those two overseas jobs (or even the third overseas job, one which is not in EUR but is in a place where people know me and I could visit the beach every day) because the work overseas is just more fun (except when it isn't, like when the government is shut down) and because living overseas is fun. But my heart wants to go home, because when things are crappy at work you can always go back to a house you chose and walk on your neighborhood trails or pick up takeout at your favorite restaurant and it is all in your native language, your native culture, and is just easy.

But that could be the shutdown talking.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

But They Closed Our Monuments!

People are really getting annoyed by the shutdown. Good. Wanna know some other things about this shutdown that really annoy me? Some of the stuff people are saying about the shutdown.

1. Why Did They Have To Close the Monuments?

People complaining about closing the national parks and monuments. Especially the monuments.

They are just statues, open memorials, they say. They don't even need anyone to run them. We have kept World War II vets from visiting the World War II memorial. Kept families from going to museums on vacation. One House member had the gall to make a park police officer apologize for the shutdown he voted for.

If you think having the monuments open doesn't require federal employees, you are wrong. Just because you don't see us (and there is part of the problem...we are all just nameless, faceless bureaucrats), doesn't mean we aren't there. We are there, and you want to know why? Because more go to those monuments than just vacationers and veterans. Know who else goes? People who leave their trash behind. People who like to vandalize. Kids (or kids in grown up bodies) who like to climb all over the monuments, fall down, break something, and then sue the government. So yeah, extra work had to be done to cordon off the monuments to protect the monuments and to protect visitors, just like extra work had to be done everywhere in the federal government in order to implement the shutdown. But that work meant that only one unpaid park ranger could monitor the monument instead of several unpaid park rangers and cleanup crews. It is the fiscally responsible thing to do.


In the same vein, why did they shut down all the websites? It isn't just to inconvenience you. It is that the websites, if left up, are vulnerable to hackers. Taking it down means not having to go through every piece of information on the site once this is all over to make sure it hasn't been altered. That, my friends, is also the fiscally responsible thing to do.

2. Isn't it great that all those House members offering to donate their salaries?

Yeah, it is awesome. They are getting their salaries and getting to donate them to the charity of their choice in exchange for looking like they are suffering along with the federal employees who are not getting paid. Two things: they have a choice to donate or not, whereas the laid off employees are just not getting paid. And two, I don't hear any of them saying that they will forego the nice tax deduction for those donations. So they will get their money back eventually.

And speaking of eventually...

3. Isn't is great that the House has passed a bill promising to give all of the laid off employees back pay when this is over?

Yeah, awesome. But here is the thing. Is your mortgage due eventually? Because mine isn't. Mine has a regular due date. As do my other bills. So great, federal employees will get their back money, hopefully in time not to destroy their credit and lose their homes. Oh, and I am sure their families can wait until eventually to eat.

Oh and here is the final one.

4. You wouldn't run your family budget the way the government runs their budget.

True, because they aren't the same. I can't print money or raise taxes. But here is the other thing. Raising the debt ceiling is not about cutting your family budget. It is much more like deciding not to pay the mortgage you already agreed to. And then not just losing your house, but being the straw that broke the bank's back so that they have to close, and everyone who they hold a mortgage on losing their homes too.

There are people who are cheering on those who pushed us to this point (even among my family and friends, who don't seem to get that they are cheering for me to be out of work. Something I would never do to them). But here is the thing. If they succeed, the country will be ungovernable. Because you have a minority group in the majority party in the House calling the shots over a law that was compromised on, approved by both houses, signed by the president, found constitutional by the Supreme Court and then vetted in a national election where the people chose not to give a majority in the Senate or the presidency to the party fighting against that law. Frankly, I don't care whether you like the law or not. If you don't like it, get it repealed the right way. Get like-minding people elected to the majority and have that majority repeal the law. But to do it this way, so that a minority can hold the country hostage and can lay off 800,000 people and stop the government from functioning and threaten the world's economy because they couldn't get the law repealed any other way, means that any time a minority group doesn't like a law, they can do the same thing. There will be no real laws. And the country will be completely ungovernable.

And then more than museums and monuments will be closed.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Stop Saying We Are Furloughed

The use of the word furlough has been bugging me, and last night I figured out why.

I was watching a tv show, and a guy told his girlfriend he would come visit her once he got furlough.

You see, furlough can be used to describe someone, especially someone in the service, being granted leave.

It is a much nicer word than what is happening, which is that people are being laid off. Temporarily probably, but laid off none the less.

The shutdown has caused more than 800,000 people to be laid off, and there are probably more lay offs to come.

This is not "leave." They are not on vacation. And chances are good they will not get paid for the time they were laid off.

I know that in the past, even those who are not "excepted" got paid eventually, but that was under a different climate.

Now we live in a political climate that despises federal employees. That thinks it is okay to freeze our pay for three years and counting. That thinks it is okay to cut people's pay by 20% thanks to the sequester. That thinks we are parasites living off the goverment.

Consider what Fox's Stuart Varney just said about federal employees when asked if we deserved back pay. He said that we are "living on our backs, and taking money out of us, a lot more money than most of us earn in the private sector, then getting a furlough, and then getting their money back at the end of it. Sorry, I'm not for that. I want to punish these people. Sorry to say that, but that's what I want to do."

That's right. He wants to "punish" us. For serving you. For keeping you safe overseas. For fighting wars for you. For keeping the museums and parks open for you. For finding cures for your diseases. For keeping your food safe and your environment clean. For serving you.

And let's discuss the whole "making more than most of us do in the private sector." Actually not true. The GOI found that while some at the lower end of the government pay scale do earn more than their private sector counterparts, this is actually not true for the majority of federal employees. Most of us earn in the neighborhood of 25% LESS than we could in the private sector, and that was before our pay was frozen for three years (and counting). But we make that sacrifice in order to serve the country. And we make it expecting job security in return.

We certainly don't have that now.

I am one of the lucky ones. I am "excepted," so I am still working, and still getting paid. (Much of my work continues to involve cancelling long-planned programs, and so is really demoralizing). There is no guarantee on how long that will last. Given my position, I will probably continue to be excepted even as this drags on, but the being paid and paid on time will become more questionable.

And while all of this is happening, our country is becoming less safe. Seventy percent of intel employees have been laid off. Gee, I hope there are no terrorist threats while there is no one to listen. Wonder who will be blamed if there are. And training for embassy security has been cancelled even as the Department continues to be blamed for not doing enough to protect our missions and consulates.

And while all of this is going on, members of Congress are still getting paid. Oh some are donating their checks to charity (you won't be claiming that on your taxes now, will you Mister Representative?). Others, like Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) said they would not be deferring her pay during the government shutdown.

"I need my paycheck. That's the bottom line," Ellmers told WTVD in Raleigh, N.C. "I understand that there may be some other members who are deferring their paychecks, and I think that's admirable. I'm not in that position."

Neither am I, Rep. Ellmers. Neither are any of the laid off federal employees who made considerably less than your $174,000 a year.

But we aren't given a choice.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A Letter from The President to Federal Employees



I especially like this part:

"Today, I wanted to take a moment to tell you what you mean to me — and to our country.

That begins by saying thank you for the work you do every day — work that is vitally important to our national security and to American families’ economic security. You defend our country overseas and ensure that our troops receive the benefits they deserve when they come home. You guard our borders and protect our civil rights. You help small businesses expand and gain new footholds in overseas markets. You guide hundreds of thousands of people each day through the glory of America’s national parks and monuments, from Yosemite to the Statue of Liberty. And much more.

You do all this in a political climate that, too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag. You have endured three years of a Federal pay freeze, harmful sequester cuts, and now, a shutdown of our Government. And yet, you persevere, continuing to serve the American people with passion, professionalism, and skill.

None of this is fair to you. And should it continue, it will make it more difficult to keep attracting the kind of driven, patriotic, idealistic Americans to public service that our citizens deserve and that our system of self-government demands."

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Shutdown

We are now on Day 2 of the shutdown of the U.S. government.

Day 2 of me trying to reassure my staff.

Day 2 of spending hours turning off things it took months to plan, knowing that if the government reopens, we will have to scramble to turn them back on.

Day 2 of worrying about getting paid, of rechecking our savings, reassuring myself we can get by for a time because we have squirrelled away a bit into savings. Day 2 of wishing I still had the downpayment we made on the house in the savings account, just in case.

Day 2 of worrying about my friends who aren't "excepted," ("excepted," if you are wondering, means everyone gets sent home without pay "except" you. You get to keep working, "except" without the guarantee of getting paid), who are unlikely to get paid during this shutdown.

I would like to go on a political rant about what brought us to this point but I won't.

I will say it is demoralizing. It is no way to treat people who have devoted their lives to the service of the country.

And I will say that it is infuriating that Congress continues to get paid while the federal workforce is furloughed. Aren't they federal employees too? And I will say that it infuriates me further when they talk of "needing their salaries" when they make so much more than the overwhelmingly middle class federal employees who are not getting paid. Or when they say they will donate their salaries to charity during the shutdown. Because unless they are planning not to claim that as a deduction on their taxes, we all know they will get that money back.

I think it is time that we change the 27th Amendment, which doesn't allow Congress to change its own pay, to require that Congress not be paid during periods of government shutdown.

And I would suggest that maybe all of us federal employees should send our monthly bills to Congress, with a note saying "We could pay our bills if you would pay yours."

Or as a friend put it: #mylivelihoodisnotabargainingchip.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Collecting Castles

When I was a kid, I went to visit my great grandmother on Kelly Mountain in West Virginia. Some kids my age lived just up the street, and they had a pet sheep named Roundy. He would come when you called him: Here, Roundy-oundy-oundy!

I have loved sheep ever since.

Completely unrelated, I also really like castles.

So the reason for my recent absence has to do with those who things, seeing sheep and, as my wife says, collecting castles.

We went to Scotland!

The trip was supposed to be our honeymoon. We talked about it long before we got married, because my wife did a year abroad at the University of Edinburgh and just loved Scotland. Of course, when we got married, she had just joined State and I was still a grad student. So we postponed. Then we were supposed to go for our 10 year anniversary. But we had a new Ambassador coming, so our travel got nixed. Then for our 11th. But that coincided with an important visit. So it got postponed again, this time by a month.

So that is where I have been lately.

We spent two full weeks in Scotland, going by train from London to Edinburgh and then by car (side note…driving there is terrifying! Not just because you have to drive on the wrong side of the road but because the roads are REALLY FRICKIN NARROW! Seriously, could you move that stone wall over say six inches?) to Loch Lomond, the Isle of Skye, Inverness/Loch Ness (another childhood fascination: the Loch Ness monster. But I never saw it), Stonehaven, St. Andrew’s, and back to Edinburgh.

And in that time, I “collected” a lot of castles, including one bucket list one!


Edinburgh Castle

Stirling Castle

Castle Eilean Donan
Castle Dunvegan on Isle of Skye

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness (that is the bucket list one)

 Castle Dunnottar in Stonehaven
(there was a bit of fog...we hiked five miles round trip for this view)

St. Andrew’s Castle

and St. Andrew’s Cathedral

And now we are back…just in time for the government to shut down.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

So Much DOMA News!

It is like every time I look at Facebook, I see something else related to the demise of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

Much of it is good news. Just the other day, the IRS announced that it would recognize the place of celebration rather than the place of residence for filing income taxes. That means that even if my wife and I were still residents of Virginia, we could file our federal taxes as married.

But of course, we'd still have to file our state taxes separately. I predict some headaches where that is concerned.

Health and Human Services announced that all beneficiaries in private Medicare plans have access to equal coverage when it comes to care in a nursing home where their spouse lives. New Mexico counties willing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples are popping up like popcorn. Some in Pennsylvania too. The Secretary for Veterans Affairs announced that same-sex spouses would NOT be eligible for benefits, and a federal judge promptly issued an injunction. Even my beloved home state of South Carolina is getting sued to recognize a couple's legal marriage!

But it is not all good news.

The Texas National Guard is still refusing to extend benefits to married same-sex couples despite a Pentagon directive to do so.

And there are still challenges for some of us serving abroad. An article in the Washington Post talks about some of those challenges, such as dealing with antiquated Status of Forces agreements that don't recognize marriage equality. One married couple in Japan is unable to live together because they can't get a visa for the non-employee husband. And work-arounds have proven too cumbersome.

Even for those of us in the State Department, which has been the most forward-leaning of the federal agencies thanks in no small part to the efforts of former Secretary of State Clinton, sometimes have problems. Only about a quarter of the posts where we serve will give diplomatic visas to same-sex spouses of Foreign Service personnel. In the rest, we have to come up with work arounds of be separated for as long as three years. And how hard to push a country to recognize a relationship and give diplomatic status to a spouse can depend on everything from unrelated political issues to the willingness of the leadership at post to be helpful.

My wife and I have been lucky. We have had excellent Ambassadors who recognized our marriage. And even if we hadn't, because we are both officers, we come with our own diplomatic immunity. So we don't have to rely on a country's willingness to recognize our marriage in order to be together (we just have to be able to get tandem assignments...but that is a whole other issue that doesn't relate to our being a same-sex couple as much as to our being married employees...we share that headache with our straight tandem-couple colleagues!).

Did I mention it is bidding season....

Anyway, it seems like each day brings a new thing to be thankful for even if each week shows us there are still battles to be fought.

And they will be fought. And won.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Equal

So long, Virginia.

Yesterday, a day before our eleven year wedding anniversary (and two and a half months before our 14 year anniversary together and four year anniversary of our legal marriage), we closed on a house in Maryland.


Isn't equality cute?
Don't get me wrong Virginia. I really like you. We both do. We especially love Northern Virginia...so close to work. So close to FSI. So many cool restaurants and dog parks and jogging trails. Your power company that isn't Pepco.

But it has felt like a one-way street.

Oh you were content enough to take our taxes. But you didn't like the money enough to make us full citizens. You didn't like us enough to let us file our taxes jointly. Or inherit from each other like spouses instead of like strangers. Or make burial arrangements for each other.

So we decided that we would become residents of Maryland instead.

Because it just seems like they want us more. Heck, they even offered to recognize our marriage as legal before same-sex couples could get married there.

I know things are changing. I hope that soon, you too will be on the right side of history. I just don't want to keep giving you money for discriminating against my family. We work hard and we serve our country, for pete's sake! We just want to be treated like everyone else.

And I know there are those who say that nothing will change if people leave instead of fighting. And I will keep fighting, just like I have since I first came out in 1986. That's right, I have been out and fighting for nearly 30 years. It is just that now, I can do it from a place of safety for my family. And I think I have earned that. And I support the fight of those who stay and fight, whether because they can't move or don't want to. I recognize that I am fortunate to have the choice.

So, see ya later Virginia. We are taking our tax dollars, our housing dollars, our retail dollars, elsewhere.

To Maryland, where we are equal.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Keeping Secrets, or, My Manning Rant

Up to now, with the exception of one shared Facebook status, I have kept my opinions on the Bradley/Chelsea Manning affair in my own head or my own home. And even as I type this, I have no idea whether I will publish it.

When the news first broke that PFC Bradley Manning, who had allegedly leaked reams of classified documents, was gay, I groaned. Just what we need, the person accused of treasonous acts being gay. And worse, saying that he did it because he was gay.

Because as a gay person, I find that personally offensive. Being gay is not an illness, and it does not force you to violate the oath you took to defend your country.

And I felt the same way when he later announced that he was actually transgender.Because being transgender also is not an illness and does not force you to violate the oath you took.

So I was dismayed when I saw so many of my friends defending her actions, first on the grounds that the U.S. Government is some big, evil thing that is out to do horrible things. And "ha ha ha, we caught you and now you are pissed about it." And second on the grounds of Manning being transgender.

I'll address the second first because it is simpler.

In the words of Kristin Beck, the transgender former Navy Seal, "What you wear, what color you are, your religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity has no basis on whether you are a CRIMINAL or NOT."

I feel no more sympathy for her actions because she is transgender than I would if she were simply Bradley Manning, standard issue straight white guy. Because there are good and bad people of every race, every religion, every sex, every sexual orientation, and every gender identity. Did you feel bad for Jeffrey Dahmer because he was gay? Or did you feel bad for all of the young men he killed and consumed?

The second is about the work of the government.

I am an American Indian, so I don't see our government through rose-colored glasses. I have an ancestor who died on the Trail of Tears. I know our government is capable of and had done some horrible things.

And so I believe, whole-heartedly, in whistle-blowing. Absolutely, if you are inside the government and learn of wrong-doing, expose it. There are hoards of journalists (among whose ranks I used to work) who are eager to help you publicize it if the channels within your organization fail. And I believe in those journalists. I believe that they are a guardian of our freedom by helping to keep the government honest.

But that isn't what Manning did. Manning was convicted of releasing classified documents without regard to content. Without believing that any particular action needed to be brought to public scrutiny. (You want an example? Take the alleged documents Manning released on Estonia. You know what the Estonians said? They said, well, if these are real then the Americans are telling Washington exactly what they told us they were.) And that isn't whistle-blowing. That is treason.

Now maybe you believe the U.S. government should have no secrets from its people. And the government saying it needs to keep secrets is unacceptable. Certainly, it seems a lot of my friends feel that way. But if you do, you are wrong, and let me give you an example of why.

Each year, in every country where we have a diplomatic mission, we write a human rights report. This is what it sounds like, a report on the human rights situation in a particular country. And to get that information, we spend the year talking to human rights activists in those countries. And reporting back to Washington what we are learning in the hopes that the U.S. government can use some of its influence to help protect people's rights world wide.

The secrets we as government employees keep are not based on making sure you don't know but on making sure that only those who need to know something actually know it. Now do you feel you have a need to know  the names of those human rights activists? Probably not.

But say you did feel you had a right to know. So say we just wrote all about everything those activists told us in unclassified, unprotected reports back to Washington.

Great! Now you know a secret. And you know who else does? The leaders in those countries that are violating people's human rights. And now not only did you get the name of the activist telling us something, but so did those leaders. And while your level of knowledge went up, those activists' life expectancy went down. Also going down? The chances that future activists will talk to us, and the chances that we can try to do anything to help.

So when they say Manning's actions put people's lives at risk, this is the kind of thing they meant. But all that is worth it to keep the government from having secrets, right?

You know who else's lives are at risk? The American diplomats who are reporting on those issues. Because there are certainly people in the world who would like it better if we stopped looking into how they treat their own people.

(And there is a certain irony that a lot of the folks who are celebrating Manning as a hero also want us to do something to help in places like Syria.)

So the consequence of all Americans getting to know everything is that everyone everywhere gets to know everything. Even the people who are killing their own people.

And that is just one reason why we might need to keep secrets. That is just one reason why I keep the oath I made to protect my country and keep her secrets.

And that is why Manning is a traitor, without regard to her gender identity.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Trekking to Trakai after Fourteen Years


I first saw a picture of Trakai, a castle in Lithuania, nearly 14 years ago. And since then, I have looked at that picture almost every day.

You see, my wife's grandmother was an artist, and my wife used to live in Vilnius. So she sometimes took pictures of places she had visited and her grandmother would paint them.

The painting of Trakai is one of my favorites of all of her work. It hangs in our bedroom.



Yesterday, I finally got to see it in person.

The castle is beautiful. It sits on an island in the middle of Lake Galvė. It was started in the 14th century by Kęstutis, and completed around 1409 by his son Vytautas the Great, who died in the castle in 1430. But over the years, it fell into ruin.

It was the Soviets who finally restored the castle, but work on the restoration actually started in the 1880s, when its original frescoes were preserved and copied and the Imperial Archaeological Commission initiated the documentation of ruins. The Imperial Russian authorities decided in 1905 to partially restore the castle, and during World War I, Germans brought in their specialists, who also tried to restore it. Period work took place on the ruins before World War II, but obviously stopped during the war. A major reconstruction project was started in 1946, and the major portion of the reconstruction was finished in 1961. The Soviets finally finished it in 1987, and the wooden statue below, was erected in honor of to Vytautas the Great there in 1994 while my wife was there.


The trip was part of a whirlwind trip to Lithuania for the long weekend. I say whirlwind because we saw most of what was in a brochure my wife found at the tourist center called "Vilnius in 3 Days," and we saw much of it in an afternoon.

No wonder my feet hurt!!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

And This Is Why We Are Moving To Maryland...

After the Supreme Court overturned the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, certain benefits were extended to married same-sex couples regardless of their state of residence. President Obama said at the time that there were two possible standards for determining marital status, place of residence and place of ceremony. he hoped that the latter definition would be used, extending marital protections to legally married couples regardless of where they currently reside.

And this is in fact the standard many agencies have been using. For example, the State Department recently began issuing visas to married same-sex couples, and DHS stopped deportation proceedings against legal spouses regardless of their state of residence.

But an article in the Washington Blade demonstrates that this is not what is happening for every agency.

For example, the Social Security Administration is putting a hold on applications where the applicants do not live in a state with marriage equality. Likewise, married couples will still have to pay state inheritance taxes should one spouse die if they live in a state without marriage equality. And the family medical leave act may not apply to couples who don't live in marriage equality states.

All of these issues can be dealt with by a simple policy change, and hopefully it will happen soon. But it isn't there yet. This affects us directly. We are currently residents of Virginia, which has a constitutional ban on our marriage. So if I died, my wife couldn't claim my body and make burial decisions for me. She would have to pay inheritance taxes on our home, and she would not be able to claim my social security.

And this is why we are moving to Maryland. With any luck, we will close on our new home in a couple weeks and soon thereafter be able to establish Maryland residency. And Virginia will have lost two taxpayers.

And we are the lucky ones. Because we work for an agency based in D.C., it is easy for us to say fine, we will just move across the border. Others aren't so lucky. Their jobs tie them to place, whether by virtue of being unable to work at the same job in another location or unable to afford to move.

We need to fix this for them. For the country. So we can all be full citizens.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

It Just Never Gets Easier

Of course, I am talking about bidding.

What, you think I forgot about it? Or forgot to write about it?

Nope, neither. In fact, there are times when it threatens to be all consuming.

The bid list came out on August 1, and I was really excited to see that a number of the positions that were listed on the projected vacancies and had looked promising were still there.

You see, those projected vacancies may or may not have any connection to reality. A person in a position at a post with 15% or great differential (hardship and/or danger) can extend if they choose. Poof...that job that was expected to be available is off the market until next year.

And the other issue is that bidders agreeing to go to what we are now referring to as PSP, or Priority Staffing Posts (aka Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Libya), get to link to their next assignment. Meaning they just to the head of the bidding queue and pick the nicest jobs, competing only with any other PSP bidder who might want that position.

And there is no guarantee that just because you are interested in something you think would not be interesting to someone coming out of a place where things blow up, that it won't get linked to. Some people really like the excitement. Some like the extra money. Some think that every place in Europe is easier than any PSP place. There may be some truth to that.

So yeah, that job you have an eye on at a 25% differential post could still get snapped up by someone who just served at a place with a 70% differential (look, over here...wouldn't you really rather take this nice Paris job?).

The linking part of things is now over, so the jobs on the current list should be there, provided people don't extend. There is at least one job I am looking at where the "incumbent" arrives this week (because it is a two year tour and you get one year of language before going to post, the people I would replace in some of these jobs are only just arriving), and he has until after the bids are due to decide if he will stay for a third year. Hopefully he will decide sooner than that, and hopefully he will decide not to extend, because that is the place I would really like to go.

But here is the rub: it isn't the place my wife really wants to go.

If you think bidding is a pain, bidding tandem is even a bigger pain.

Not only are you now hunting for two jobs instead of one, but you are also looking for two jobs at the same post or at least at posts within commuting distance of each other. That really limits the number of jobs you can bid on that.

Add to that each of our own career wants and needs. For example, we are both currently section heads. We'd like to be section heads in our next assignment too, but in many cases, there simply aren't enough section head positions open. Or there is a section head position that will be open at just the right time but it doesn't require language so it won't be on the bid list until next year. Does she take a deputy position or do I? How do we decide? Or do we just do like many tandems and go back to DC, where it is easier to find another position overseas next time around?

So many of our spare time conversations for the past week have revolved around what to do next. No option is perfect. There will be compromises either way.

And there is no guarantee we will get any of what we want (though I did have a phone interview yesterday that felt really positive. It was essentially for any position in Europe because the bureau has a new system for Public Diplomacy jobs that involves a new web-based reference center....lucky me, my experiences with it are helping them work out the bugs, sigh. A couple quick notes about the 360 Reference Center for you if you are bidding PD jobs in Europe. That "save" button? Don't use it. It submits your application without you getting to finish it. Also, don't start unless you have time to finish...the application times out if you are away too long - or take too long. The description of why you are qualified - have it in a word document or something you can use to cut and paste from in case you lose it. And if you put in a state.gov email address for a reference, it will automatically populate the rest of the fields for that reference from the GAL, even if that person is on home leave, and you won't be able to add a correct phone number or change the person's position).

And of course, all of this is before we move on to the asking your bid to the prom phase. Do I wait for the girl I like like, or do I just settle for the girl I kind of like?

Nope, it never gets easier. God I hate bidding.