Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Scare Over?

Happy Halloween!

My own personal scare seems to be over. Apparently I am not getting the dreaded "prime candidate" email, at least not this time. Of course, next summer bidding season, M will be bidding, and presumably, if I get a two-year position this round, I will be the following summer. I fully expect one or both of us to get the call by then.

I do know a number of folks who got the email, and I have to say that the identification process for "prime candidates" is even less transparent than I expected. Of the four folks I know personally who have gotten the email, only one has regional and language experience. A good friend from A-100 has served in Algiers and Beijing, so he has French and Chinese. One woman in the Ops center got the email because the person on the committee knew her. Another has served in Romania and England. On the one hand, I am glad they are "spreading the wealth" to folks outside of those who have served in the Middle East. On the other, how are they choosing? Grade, cone and transfer eligibility date seem to have the most to do with it, but I can't really be sure of that.

It does seem like they are targetting people at the rank of FS 03. So maybe there is at least one bright spot to my not getting promoted this time.

Our Pumpkins

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Letter from AFSA

This is an email sent out by our "union," which eloquently states many of the concerns both I and many of my collegues have voiced. The bolding is mine.

AFSANET: Implications of Directed Assignments: October 30, 2007

This is an update from AFSA President John Naland:

On October 26, 2007, the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources, Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr., announced to the news media (and later to employees via an ALDAC cable) that the well has finally run dry of State Department Foreign Service volunteers to serve in the war zone in Iraq. He announced that, if volunteers
could not be found for 48 remaining positions by November 12, then directed assignments would begin.

AFSA regrets this fateful turn of events. From 2003 through 2007, over 2,000 career Foreign Service members volunteered to serve in Iraq. Now, with the Foreign Service facing a fifth rotation into Iraq, the addition of 80 new positions to fill next summer at the giant U.S. mission in Baghdad and the expanding Provincial Reconstruction Teams around the country has pushed the strain on our ranks to the breaking point.

While there are many Foreign Service members who have not (yet) served in Iraq, only a small fraction possesses the regional, language, or other expertise that Ambassador Ryan Crocker says that he needs. And many members in that reduced group are now at, or have recently returned from, some other hardship assignment.

With 68 percent of the Foreign Service already “forward deployed” in 189 foreign countries (compared to 21 percent of the uniformed military stationed abroad), the Foreign Service has no bench strength with which to surge more personnel into Iraq. The State Department’s own September 2007 staffing data show a 1,015 position operational staffing deficit in the Foreign Service, plus an additional 1,079 position deficit in training and related needs. This 2,094 position deficit is documented in a blue-ribbon report released on October 15 by the Center for Strategic & International Studies

Yet, despite this huge deficit between the State Department’s mission and the resources available to carry out that mission, the Administration is seeking to add just 254 new positions in its still-pending FY-08 budget request. The prospects are uncertain for Congressional funding of even that inadequate request. That comes on top of Congressional refusal to fund 100 positions in FY-07 and 221 additional positions in FY-06 to narrow worldwide staffing gaps.

All of these factors have combined to deplete the well of potential Foreign Service volunteers for Iraq. Nevertheless, AFSA repeats its call for any Foreign Service member who has been considering a tour in Iraq to volunteer now. We also repeat our call for Foreign Service retirees with Middle East experience, particularly those with Arabic-language skills, to consider serving in Iraq. For both groups, the financial and other benefits are substantial. Obviously, there are also substantial physical and emotional risks.

At the same time, AFSA stands by our position that directed assignments of unarmed Foreign Service members into the war zone in Iraq would be detrimental to the individual, to the post, and to the Foreign Service as a whole.

This position has been questioned by some who point to the Foreign Service record during the Vietnam War. However, most Foreign Service veterans of that conflict with which AFSA has consulted draw sharp distinctions between Vietnam and Iraq. Without minimizing the courage
and sacrifices of their colleagues and themselves 40 years ago, they report that Saigon (except during the 1968 Tet Offensive) was rarely as dangerous as Baghdad has been and that the Viet Cong rarely targeted CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) personnel in the way that PRT members in Iraq are being targeted. They also note that the State Department today gives Iraq-bound Foreign Service members only around two weeks of pre-deployment training compared to the four to six month comprehensive training regimen provided to Vietnam-bound diplomats.

All this serves to underscore the remarkable dedication of Foreign Service volunteers in Iraq since 2003. The same is certainly true for Foreign Service volunteers in Afghanistan.

Thus, while AFSA acknowledges that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has legal authority to order Foreign Service members to Iraq, we continue to urge the State Department to find ways to staff a right-sized Embassy Baghdad with volunteers. Those ways, as AFSA has long suggested, could include substantially increasing the Involuntary Separate Maintenance Allowance, creating special incentives for those willing to serve two-year tours in Iraq, and actively recruiting Foreign Service retirees willing to serve in Iraq.

The announcement of directed assignments to the war zone in Iraq is a further blow to Foreign Service morale that is already depressed by a widely shared conclusion that the Administration in recent years has paid inadequate attention to securing the resources that diplomats need to
advance America’s vital interests worldwide.

In the online opinion survey of active duty State Department Foreign Service members being conducted by AFSA State Vice President Steve Kashkett (it began in mid-October and will run for one more week after which AFSA will report full results), only 15 percent of the over 3,700 respondents to date say that they believe that the Administration is doing a good job of securing resources for the Department. Only 12 percent believe that the Administration is doing a good job of convincing Congress to correct the overseas pay disparity. Only 20 percent believe that the Administration is doing a good job of defending the Foreign Service. This lack of support arguably weakens the State Department’s moral authority to order unarmed diplomats to serve in
the war zone in Iraq.

In the survey, a striking 45 percent say that “developments in the last few years have made me less likely to remain in the Foreign Service for a full career.” That last statistic is higher among entry level employees. AFSA has a request pending for updated Foreign Service attrition statistics.

The poll also shows that 68 percent of respondents oppose directed assignments to Iraq. And that snapshot of survey results was taken before directed assignments changed from being a future possibility to an immediate probability. In the last few days, AFSA has received an
avalanche of e-mails from members, many expressing hurt and disbelief that they and their families learned about this life-and-death announcement last weekend via the news media instead of directly from their employer.

In the days ahead, AFSA will continue to speak out on behalf of the Foreign Service on the issue of directed assignments to Iraq. In doing so, we will be guided by our responsibilities as the voice of the Foreign Service. We will also be guided by our new survey results showing that two thirds of respondents want AFSA to be more vocal and assertive, even at the cost of more friction with Management (one percent of respondents want us to be less vocal and assertive).

To conclude, AFSA salutes the over 2,000 career Foreign Service members who have volunteered since 2003 to serve in the war zone in Iraq. We encourage any Foreign Service member who has been considering a tour in Iraq to volunteer now. We also continue to strongly urge the State Department to find ways to staff a right-sized Embassy Baghdad with volunteers.

If only I'd had my camera!

As much as I dislike the overnight shift, there is something that is always stunning about seeing DC in the early morning sun after having been up all night.

This morning, though, I got a special treat. As I was heading across Memorial Bridge toward Arlington cemetery on my way home at about 8 this morning, I spotted a bald eagle flying across the bridge and down the Potomac River. And just behind it, there was another! A pair of bald eagles flying together!

Probably best I didn't have my camera...I nearly wrecked without one!

Still Don't Know...

...if I have dodged the bullet. The emails that were to be sent around identifying the "prime candidates" for the Iraq positions today didn't go out. Supposedly we will hear tomorrow.

Seems like most folks are pretty upset about the way we were "notified." The cable telling us about all this went out after close of business Friday and AFTER the press conference. That is really no way to treat people who are serving the country, people you are asking to put themselves in harms way, unarmed in a war zone.

Monday, October 29, 2007

What I Miss...

I have heard people say that overseas, they get really accustomed to having GSO take care of all of their maintenance needs. They get back to the states and have forgetten how to change a lightbulb.

Not me. Since returning, I have not only changed lightblubs, I have re-caulked my tub, installed a cabinet in the bathroom, assembled new bookshelves, ripped out old cable wire, and hauled away all the boxes from moving home. Yes, overseas, they would do all of that except the lightbulb!

No, what I miss is medical. M and I recently had some things we considered going to the doctor over, and I suggested we go to the nurse at work to get a referral. Nope. Not even a referral. And I had gotten used to the nurse being someone I could wake up in the middle of the night if I had food poisoning. Someone who would call in a prescription for antibiotics, or arrange tests at labs. Someone who would go with me to the hospital if need be. Someone who called to check on my after my apartment was robbed, and again after I was robbed at knifepoint. Someone I trusted. And now I have to find my own doctor?

So, Eliana, the list of what I miss about Jerusalem isn't a long one, but you are definitely on it!!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Iraq Bound?

If you read the Washington Post online today, you know that the department has decided to "direct" people to Iraq. We all knew this was coming...they just weren't able to get enough "volunteers" even with the incentive packages and arm twisting.

It is more likely that M will get forced than that I will, though I am not happy with either prospect. She got Arabic training and I got Hebrew, so she has the coveted "regional and language experience." Basically meaning that the Department is first sending people who have already volunteered to serve in the Middle East. Sort of makes me wish we had pushed for going to Europe. Silly us, we wanted to serve where the country needed us.

The article is below, in full. Do note however that saying that directed assignments have happened before because an entire class of junior officers was directed to Vietnam is a bit disengenuous. Junior officers are always directed on their first two tours. It is after those tours that officers have the expectation of not being forced into a job.

I suspect this will put a big damper on recruiting, and I know a LOT of folks who said they would quit if it came to this.

U.S. State Department enforces postings to Iraq

By Sue Pleming
Friday, October 26, 2007; 8:14 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Facing staff shortages in Iraq, the U.S. State Department announced on Friday that diplomats would have no choice but to accept one-year postings in the hostile environment or face losing their jobs.

In what is likely to be an unpopular move with staff, State Department human resources director Harry Thomas said about 250 "prime candidates" for vacant Iraqi posts would be notified on Monday of the decision.

He said they would have 10 working days to respond to the demand that they go to Iraq in summer, 2008, and only those with valid reasons such as a medical problem, would be exempt.

Until now postings to Iraq have been on a voluntary basis and often hard to fill.

"We have all taken an oath to serve our country and so if someone decides they do not want to go, then we would then consider appropriate actions," Thomas said in a conference call with reporters.

"We have many options, including dismissal from the foreign service," added Thomas, who returned on Thursday from a visit to Iraq where he assessed staffing needs for next year.

Iraq assignments will be handed out from November 12 until the U.S. Thanksgiving Holiday on November 22 but Thomas said he hoped that enough diplomats would step forward voluntarily.

Privately, many U.S. diplomats say they fear being posted to Iraq because of the risks of working in a war zone. In addition, it is an "unaccompanied" posting, meaning children and a spouse cannot accompany the diplomat because of the dangers involved.

Thomas said the State Department had made "directed" assignments before, such as in 1969 when an entire junior foreign officer class was sent to Vietnam and again in the 1970s and 1980s for some difficult African postings.

"This is not unique," he said. "Foreign service officers have always volunteered for their country."

Currently there are about 200 U.S. diplomats in Iraq who serve on a one-year basis and the staffing need would rise to about 250 for next summer, he said.

Thomas said about 1,200 State Department employees have already served in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 and those postings have so far been on a volunteer basis.

He said there was an attractive financial package for those serving in Iraq as well as five recreational breaks during the year-long posting.

He did not believe the move would discourage people from joining the foreign service.

"After Google and Disney, we are the most popular place for people to work," Thomas said, referring to a recent survey that ranked the State Department in the top five places to work in America.

Monday, October 08, 2007

I Must Be Nuts...

Maybe I am nuts to think about leaving the Foreign Service and going back into archaeology. One thing the Foreign Service definitely affords you is the opportunity to see so much more of the world than you would likely see otherwise (if for no other reason than cost).

I was just looking at the photos I posted on my Facebook page and thinking about all the places I have been. I have scuba'd in the Red Sea. I have climbed Masada and Vesuvious. I have ridden a camel to the pyramids at Giza. I have been in the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I've wandered the streets of Pompeii and seen the Piata and the Sistine Chapel. I have hiked through Petra and seen the Dead Sea Scrolls. And I have lived where I had a good view of the Dome of the Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem from my balcony.

How cool is that?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Overnights Again

Some of my collegues told us Watch newbies that working the Watch feels like constant jetlag...

Boy are they right.

I just finished two overnights, and I am feeling every minute of my 40 years. But on the bright side, I am getting sushi again tonight (let's hear it for having friends who are also sushi addicts!) and then I have four days off. The plan is to make some progress on my dissertation.

In other news, folks I have talked to about jobs I am bidding on are beginning to reach out to references I gave them. Which means, I hope, they are seriously considering me. I know the German desk has contacted one of my friends in Jerusalem, and the folks from the Balkans desks have gotten back to me wanting to know my ranking of those jobs. Both are good signs. I think I have a decent shot at being offered a good job this time. Maybe of having more than one good one to choose from.