What Have I Gotten Myself Into? Tales from Rough First Tours
Life in the Foreign Service certainly has its advantages – working in often exotic locales, meeting fascinating people, being a part of important, sometimes historical, events. But, like other glamorous jobs, it has its drawbacks, not the least of which come with the drudgery of first and sometimes second tours, where most FSOs end up doing thankless consular work or drafting tedious reports.
Theresa A. Loar discusses the challenges of entering the Foreign Service as a first-tour consular officer in Mexico City in 1986 and how, despite feeling that her work was unsatisfying, the tour became unexpectedly dramatic. Loar was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2001.
Albert Thibault describes his challenging first tour in Conakry, Guinea as a Political/Economic Officer between 1969 and 1971 when the Portuguese invaded Guinea in an attempt to overthrow the Guinea government. He was by interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2005.
Thomas Hull tells the story of how he and his friends were taken hostage by the military dictator Mobutu’s notorious paratroopers during his first tour as a Public Affairs Trainee in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976. He was by interviewed by Kennedy in 2010.
Stephen T. Johnson a Consular Officer in Montreal during his first tour in between 1963 and 1965, recounts how his consulate was bombed by separatists in the middle of the night. He was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in 1997.
Vella G. Mbeena, a Support Communications Officer, describes how she had more than three brushes with death during her second tour in Lima, as she encountered explosions, cholera, and a scary car accident. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed her beginning February 2016.
Eileen Malloy recounts her first tour experience in London between 1978 and 1979 in her interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2008. Despite feeling underwhelmed by life in the Foreign Service, she experienced one bright spot when she met Darth Vader.
“I did not think I was doing work of value. I didn’t think it was serious work.”
Theresa A. Loar, Non- Immigrant Visa officer, Mexico City, 1986
LOAR: I was a non-immigrant Visa officer. … It reminded me of my first high school job, working as a checkout girl in a supermarket, because it was fast, and they didn’t care what you did as long you did it fast. (Getty Images)
I did not think I was doing work of value. I didn’t think it was serious work. I could have been, but it wasn’t when you were being asked to make these decisions in …under 60 seconds, I’m sure.
We would go out to the barn in Mexico City. If you’ve done consular work, you know what that’s like; and it was the waiting area that they built like a giant Quonset hut to shield people from the sun.
This one fellow officer, Michael Scown, who was a big lawyer, really fun guy from San Francisco, [and I] would go out to the barn because we were the fastest; and we would go up and down the aisles and make ridiculous decisions based on whether somebody looked clean or not; and we would just like pluck out the ones we knew were never coming back to Mexico, were clearly going for work or whatever in the United States.
But I also felt very torn because I started thinking, “Well, wait a minute! My grandparents were immigrants. I have to treat these people fairly.” But my job was to carry out the immigration law, which was riddled with inconsistencies.
We’d get these ridiculous CODELS (Congressional Delegations) all the time asking us to ignore the immigration law. So I didn’t feel it was particularly valuable and important work, and I didn’t think anybody cared how it was done as long as it was done fast….
“I got a call from a man who identified himself as a Nicaraguan diplomat and said he wanted to defect to the United States”
One day, on lunch duty, I got a call from a man who identified himself as a Nicaraguan diplomat and said he wanted to defect to the United States. Now, my immediate reaction was somebody who wanted to jump the line. You know, “I can understand that pal. I would want to jump the line too!”…
I said, “Well, come to the front door.” I mean, you know, it was lunch duty. It’s what I was supposed to be doing.…
So he said, “I won’t come to the front gate because I know there’s cameras there.”
I thought, “This is somebody who’s on the ball. This is a clever line jumper.” I said, “Okay, I’ll come to the side gate.” So I had a Foreign Service National come with me, because I didn’t want to go to the side door and let somebody in without some other person there with me.
This person comes in, is shaking like a leaf, has a military uniform on, has an official passport, has who appears to be his wife with him; and they’re both shaking like crazy. I realized that this was probably something serious and talked to them a little bit.
I felt bad for them because they were so nervous and so anxious. I said to them, “You wanted to talk about defecting.” Then I said, “Tell me what your thoughts are.”
He said, “Well, I’ve been trying to approach the embassy for days, and days, and days, and days; and I’ve not been able to get in… I’m only here for a few days. If I don’t have these conversations with the right people soon, my opportunity will be lost. I am the top aide to Humberto Ortega (pictured) at the Defense Ministry in Nicaragua, and I don’t like what they’re doing, and I know where their secret bank accounts are, and I know how they betrayed the revolution and the people.”
So I took the passport and called members of the Embassy staff, and they came down and interviewed him behind closed doors. I kept calling back upstairs, and they were very excited because this was a real live person who had real live information, and it was a sincere defection.
It turned out that they did bring him to the United States. At that time the Mexican government was quite friendly with the Sandinistas. We did not want the Mexican government to know that this guy had defected to us, so they got him out and got him to the United States.
“The lowest, lowest job has its rewards if you do it right”
A couple of weeks later Judge [William H.] Webster, who directed the CIA, came to town….I was invited to come up and talk to the station chief again. I thought, “Well, you know, maybe there’s some other thing related to this.” But Judge Webster was there, and he presented me with an award for my work in bringing in this defector, and it was great. My view was: what a great opportunity to be able to help someone who has information that could be helpful to U.S. interests.
The fellow who defected was Roger Miranda, and he stayed undercover for a long time. Then, they pulled him out and made him public when there was some key vote in Congress on whether to continue to provide funding against the Sandinistas to undermine their government. He was a key witness and gave key testimony; he was listed in an article in Newsweek; I think he got the largest resettlement package of any defector. It was very interesting to have experienced this overall.
But I always told that story to other junior officers to say, “The lowest, lowest job has its rewards if you do it right.”
“That was the beginning of an attempt by the Portuguese to overthrow the Touré government”
Albert Thibault, Political/Economic Officer, Conakry, Guinea, 1969-1971
THIBAULT: Let me start by saying that, in many ways, Guinea was the most memorable of my assignments, of all of the assignments I’ve had. Very briefly, Guinea was a West African country which had been a former French colony.
By political conviction and certainly to create, as he put it, “the New Guinean Man,” and the “New African Man,” President Ahmed Sekou Touré had established a socialist Guinea, creating all the infrastructure of a Third World socialist economy and political order and society, to the extent that he could influence social attitudes. The Party was everything, meaning the PDG, the Parti Democratique de Guinée, it was called, the Democratic Party of Guinea.
The Soviets had enormous influence, a huge embassy, as did the Chinese who were their rivals. The Chinese had built the People’s Palace in Conakry, a large, very modern convention hall, which they staffed, because the Guineans didn’t have the technical expertise to maintain it. The East Germans ran the security and intelligence services and were also very influential.
So, needless to say, the Western countries, including the United States, had cool relations with Guinea. The number one whipping boy were the French, their former colonial masters. Guinea had been the only colony in French West Africa that had, in 1958, spurned post-independence association with France, a decision by Sekou (as everyone called him) that infuriated de Gaulle.
The French departed abruptly, supposedly removing even the light bulbs as they exited. But, in addition, the regime also had a phobia about NATO, especially the FRG, no doubt reflecting East German inputs. So, West Germany, the United States, and France were constantly being sort of pilloried in the country’s one paper, l’Horoya.
On the morning of November 21, 1970, which was the day after eid al-fitr, the end of Ramadan, the ambassador…thought he saw activity on the horizon. Being an old navy man, he went out and got his binoculars, looked again, now spotting a flotilla of warships far out at sea.
And then to his astonishment they began launching boats like Boston Whalers which, as he watched, landed on the coast, some of them not too far from the ambassador’s residence. That was the beginning of an attempt by the Portuguese, who were in neighboring Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), to overthrow the Touré government.
The reason for their hostility was that the headquarters for the liberation movement for Portuguese Guinea was located in Conakry, and they had an enclave there. So they would maintain contact with their people, being directed by their leader, Amilcar Cabral, who was a very charismatic personality.
Cabral was recognized not just as the leader of the PAIGC, [Partido Africano da Independência da Guinié e Cabo Verde or African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde] the name of their party, but even in Pan-African terms as one of the great African liberation leaders. The Portuguese then were under military rule. So they launched this expedition to be rid of the PAIGC once and for all….
So to resume, on November 21, the Portuguese … began seizing strong points and the fighting raged all day. I had left to drive overland for the first time to Liberia a few days earlier. As it happened, I was returning from Monrovia and entering Guinea that very day.
I stopped at the border of Liberia and Guinea at about two o’clock in the afternoon…While looking at my passport and visa, the Guinean border official exclaimed, “Oh, it’s two o’clock. I must turn on the news from Conakry,” referring to the regular two o’clock news broadcast.
And immediately he did that, I could hear the Voice of the Revolution describing how “our brave troops are fighting the Portuguese, the imperialist invaders. The President of the Republic is at the head of the valiant resisters. We are certainly going to drive them into the sea.” Very inflammatory, very highly charged language.
“So I was really in the soup. I was brought under heavy escort to the provincial governor, who was himself rallying the militants.”
So the border fellow, while very distraught and upset by the news, nevertheless allowed me to enter Guinean territory. I hadn’t gone more than about ten kilometers after picking up my Embassy driver, who had been waiting because the Liberians wouldn’t allow Guineans into their country, when we rounded a bend and immediately were surrounded by guys with their weapons drawn, all pointed at me. It was a police post.
I was immediately asked for my papers which I showed them. I said, “I’m a diplomat. You have no right to examine the car.”
They said, “Monsieur, we’re at war! We have to search you and we’re going to detain you.”
To add further insult to injury, from their point of view, they looked through my wallet and they came across a calling card from a person I’d called on in Monrovia. And he said, “Ha! You’ve been in touch with the Portuguese!”
I said, “What do you mean?”
“It says right here! General Tire! Military man!”
I said, “No, that’s the name of a company!” General Tire! Tire in French also means to shoot. So I was really in the soup. I was brought under heavy escort to the provincial governor, who was himself rallying the militants, as they called them, the Party faithful, who were a sort of paramilitary force.
Well, one of the reasons for my trip upcountry had been to call on the new ambassador to Washington, who happened to be this governor. We had had a very good conversation on my way into Liberia.
So on my way out of Liberia they bring me to see him. We fell into each other’s arms and then he brought me up to speed on what was going on in Conakry.
I was held there for about three days, at a hotel, with a World Bank guy. The ambassador managed to get a message out to me, saying my wife was okay and they were working with the government to have me flown to Conakry. So finally, I did fly back to Conakry.
“When we showed up in our embassy vehicle without a driver, they sort of took us hostage until we would pay them off”
Thomas N. Hull, Public Affairs Trainee, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1976-1977
HULL: Very memorable was my first weekend there. I had a friend from the A-100 course [orientation for new Foreign Service Officers] who had arrived a couple of months before me as one of the junior political officers. Our first weekend there he and his wife decided to take my wife and myself on a picnic to the countryside along the Zaire River. At the time the Shaba war was going on, and the borders were closed to the country.
What we didn’t know is he was driving us to a place that was under the control of Mobutu’s notorious paratroopers. When we showed up in our embassy vehicle without a driver, just sort of on our own, they sort of took us hostage until we would pay them off.
Of course neither of us or our spouses really wanted to pay them off, but my friend’s spouse was very pregnant, so that was a consideration. So we spent hours, at least a couple of hours with these guys haggling with them.
They said, “Well you must have something for us, otherwise we will probably arrest you as spies or something.’ “I am sorry we don’t have anything for you,” we said.
At the same time unfortunately a Zairian commercial truck came wandering down the road into their area. Once the guys saw the soldiers he immediately did a U-turn because he saw these guys were going to steal all of the goods out of his truck. So they grabbed me and they told me follow that truck.
With a gun pointed to my head I was told to drive the vehicle and catch the truck. I knew that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to catch the truck because if I did they probably wouldn’t want a witness to what they were doing.
So I very slowly drove, and they drove off. But anyway they eventually brought me back.
I think in the end my friend had a couple of packs of cigarettes, and so for the price of a couple of packs of cigarettes they ultimately gave us our freedom. I thought nothing of it. I thought this happened all the time in the Foreign Service.
“This was before terrorism and bombing. The consulate had no fence around it or anything like that.”
Stephen T. Johnson, Consular Officer, Montreal, Canada, 1963-1965
JOHNSON: The consulate got bombed one night. I really forget if it was 1964 or 1965, somebody put a bomb under kind of a bridge between the two houses that made up the consulate. Sometime about midnight or one o’clock the thing went off. There was nobody in the consulate.
I guess the little man who cleaned up after hours might have still been there. But anyway it blew in about 80 windows. It didn’t harm anybody. We called the Operations Center and said we had been bombed. But the consul general was reluctant to send a telegram because of how difficult it was to do so.
We were all home. Somebody must have called the consul general and he called me and there were several junior officers [who] kind of trooped down there. The police were crunching around in the broken glass. The CG [Consul General] gave me the job of staying there all night because there was no longer any security with all these.
I kind of sat in the consulate with this wind blowing in and out, listening to the police crunching around outside. There wasn’t much else to do. I looked around and found a paperback novel about the kind of high life of the diplomatic circles. I forget the name of the thing. So I read that while I was in this kind of desolate consulate.
The bombing was kind of strange. This was before terrorism and bombing. The consulate had no fence around it or anything like that. The separatists who were the principal bombers, one might say, had no real argument with the United States.
In fact, one of the things that I like about French Canada was in those days at least, when in the rest of the world things did not work out right they blamed the United States, in French Canada they blamed the English Canadians. When you met, separatists and the like were always very friendly and interested in convincing you of their argument.
[In those days,] the Quebec FLQ (their flag is pictured here) was kind of the semi-terrorist organization. When they did do bombings, they normally announced it and why they did it. No one ever did [time] for this. My theory was that it was Jurassic separatists from Switzerland who had mistaken us for the Swiss consulate next door and then were too embarrassed to say anything. But no one else bought that. I don’t know if anybody ever found out about it.
“My assignment to Peru was short, but with the potential to be deadly. God was with me for sure.”
Vella Mbeena, Support Communications Officer, Lima, Peru, 1991
MBEENA: I recall one night my colleague and I wanted to go out dancing. So, we went to a disco downtown. It was crowded and jumping. We had just started enjoying ourselves when all of a sudden there was an explosion next door. Folks scrambled to get out of there and so did we. We jumped in our car and headed home.
On another occasion, I was on my way to work when I heard a big blast and my car rocked. I looked back and saw this building crumbling. I kept on driving. After a while, I just got used to it and prayed that neither my son nor I would become a casualty.
During our overseas briefing seminar (SOS) I recalled seeing films of diplomats and military assassinations and other acts of terror against U.S. interests. So, even before going on my first assignment, I knew at that moment that it would be dangerous as well as exciting.
However, the dangerous side of it did not make me doubt what I had signed up for — it made the career choice even more exciting. Back during that SOS training is when I realized that there is nothing “only” good in life. There has to be a downside to everything. The danger element of being a diplomat was the downside of my career.
I was at a social with my friends when I was recalled to process a night action cable. I had had a few drinks but I clearly knew that I was not the duty communicator. Nevertheless, I responded by going to the Embassy in my vehicle. I assumed my colleague on duty could not be reached. I could have ignored it, but I knew we were living in dangerous times and the recall would not have been initiated if it wasn’t an emergency and time was of the essence. All the guards knew me and my car because I went in a lot during non-working hours.
However, that night, I was asked for my badge and I jokingly asked in Spanish, Why? He said something in Spanish back at me and I rolled my window down all the way.
That is when he pulled his gun and pointed it at me. I sobered it in an instance and said in Spanish that I was sorry and let me get my badge. I was shaking until I left the embassy that night. I never joked around again. That was scarier that the explosion next to the night club.
Next, I had brush with death was via cholera. I love ceviche and ate it anywhere that sold it. I figured the lemon and vinegar would kill the germs so it did not matter where I bought it from. It did not always have to be the fancy ceviche places downtime.
So, while on a beach out of town with my son, I had ceviche. Within hours I was in knots. Immediately, we headed back to town and just in time. The profuse diarrhea and vomiting started. Anything I ate came out so I resorted to eating just very cold watermelon. After a few days of the same, I knew I had to go to the embassy health unit.
When I did, they said I had contracted something official Americans rarely caught: cholera. They gave me some pills to take right then and a few to take later. Within a few days, I had the Department of State medical unit, CDC, and the Navy medical research team in Peru calling me to ask how I contracted it, how I felt, etc.
Also, I was due to go home on vacation, but the medical unit said that I had to wait for a while. They also said what kept me alive, because normally folks die from dehydration pretty quick with cholera, is the intake of the watermelon. Thank God for watermelon. I never want cholera again. I could barely see when the attacks occurred. That was a close brush with death.
Another one was a close call for me and my son. Our house was on a busy street corner. The Peruvians did not drive extremely fast. So when I returned home from carrying my son to the airport to go home for the summer and found my block fence down and a car literally struck my house, I got weak and thought the worse — an act of terror.
A tree was knocked down in my front yard, too — the tree my son would have been in if I had not taken him to the airport. He used to climb that tree and sit in it to watch the traffic and read his books. Also, if he was in the tree, I would have been sitting on the balcony off the room where the car was stuck. So, it would have been a double death or injury for my family.
Come to find out after the security investigation, someone who was speeding had lost control after swerving to avoid hitting someone. So, my assignment to Peru was short, but with the potential to be deadly. God was with me for sure.
“He said, “I am Darth Vader.” I’m thinking oh my God.”
Eileen Malloy, Consular Officer, London, England, 1978-1979
MALLOY: When you had a problem case of any kind, London was one of the dumping grounds, London or Ottawa or some other post. Actually it was a huge problem because when I got to London there were very few functional people because Washington had assumed that London could carry these non-performers. It was difficult.
That to me was a huge eye opener because I had assumed that the cream of the crop would be assigned to London. Everybody would be great, and they weren’t. I actually am surprised I stayed in the Foreign Service as I had actually decided to quit after London because I was so unimpressed.
Well, there was one officer who was, insisted on wearing polyester stretch pants to work every day and who would smoke–. It was all the open counters in those days and this officer would sit there with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth dripping ash all over the place. Just very unprofessional.
There were those that you could never find. I remember being on the visa line, and there were five or six open carrels where you would be doing interviews in NIV (nonimmigrant visa), and all of a sudden it would be very quiet and you would look around and find that you were the only officer there. Everyone else is off on coffee breaks somewhere. There are hundreds of people in the waiting room staring at you, the lone officer.
One of my supervisors was just an alcoholic. One was a recycled staff officer who wanted to be a generalist, but didn’t want to supervise anybody and refused to do our evaluation reports. He said, “Just go off and do yourself.” I had to write my first one, and I didn’t know how to do it.
My second one was done by this alcoholic officer, and she said the same thing, just write your own. The boss above that called me into his office and said, “Well, this person has a problem and so I think the report they did is really poor for you and I’d like you to take another shot at it.”
At that point I just threw my hands up and said, “Well, frankly I wrote it because I was told to but I don’t know how to write these things.” So, it was a really rocky start.
Once the staff came to me and said “there is this British man and he will not go away. He’s insisting on seeing you and he’s not an American.” So I finally went out and talked to him. He said, “You don’t know who I am and that’s the problem.”
He said, “I am Darth Vader.” I’m thinking, oh my God.
He was the British actor who played Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies (David Prowse).
The body was his. Of course the voice was James Earl Jones, but most people don’t realize he was never under that costume. The man said, “I am one of the biggest stars and nobody knows me and they’re telling me I have to go stand in that visa line and I will not stand in that visa line.”
So we took his visa application and walked him out the back door. He, I saw in the paper that he passed away about five years ago. He was a British body builder. Just, he just did all the stunts and everything. But it was really funny. No one knows my name—or my face—no one knows my face.