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Finding Resilience in the Bombing of the Al Rasheed: Beth Payne in Iraq

Life in the Foreign Service extends far beyond the office, following its officers into all realms of existence abroad, at times for the worse. In 2003, after a military invasion, the United States had just begun its occupation of Iraq. A betrayal by Iraqi dissident Ahmed Chalabi thwarted U.S. efforts to set up an Iraqi president that would be accepted by the Iraqi populace.

Baghdad’s Green Zone (2008) Robert Smith, WikiMedia Commons
Baghdad’s Green Zone (2008) Robert Smith, WikiMedia Commons

For the Foreign Service Officers posted to Iraq at this time, this meant arriving in a host country with no established embassy, no consulate, and no country team.

When Beth Payne arrived in Baghdad, she quickly discovered that she and her co-workers would be taking up residence in the Al Rasheed hotel, initially sharing rooms that failed even to lock, following the theft of the building’s doorknobs. In her first few months, as she established an Office of the U.S. Consul, Payne also adapted to shootings outside of her hotel, the prevalence of weapons in the hotel bar, and the harassment of women at the hotel pool. Already, her service as a Consular Officer felt marked by a sense of fear she had not felt in her earlier postings in Kuwait, Israel, or Rwanda. Yet, this aura of danger proved merely a precursor to the events that would follow that very October.

On October 26, 2003, insurgents took advantage of a security vulnerability and used the reopened bridge across the Green Zone, the international zone of Baghdad, to launch approximately forty rockets at the hotel. Beth Payne awoke early that morning to the call of prayer marking the first day of Ramadan moments before an explosion shook the building and altered her career permanently. In this “Moment,” Beth Payne recounts her own experience of that fateful morning, as well as the ripple effects this morning would have throughout the rest of her career, shaping her later work as an Associate Dean at the Foreign Service Institute.

Beth Payne’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on April 10, 2019.

Read Beth Payne’s full oral history HERE.

Read an account featuring Beth Payne’s experiences in India with WikiLeaks HERE.

Drafted by Miranda Allegar

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Excerpts:

“’The Al Rasheed has just been attacked. I know of at least one State Department person who’s been injured. There are other injuries. I don’t know who they are yet. We’re on our way to the clinic.'”

A Brutal Awakening: It is October 26th, the morning of October 26th and it is the first day of Ramadan and I woke up around 6:00 AM to the call of prayer. I’ve always found the call of prayer quite enjoyable. It’s a soothing sound and I’m thinking, “Oh, it’s the first day of Ramadan, the call to prayer,” and then, within—I’m not sure the time period—it had to have been seconds, there was this humongous explosion. I mean, the loudest sound I’ve ever experienced. The building shook enormously, and my room filled with smoke and I knew that we were under attack. . . . But you could feel, based on just the building shaking and the noise and the smoke, that this was huge. Now, what had happened was on October 25th, [Paul “Jerry”] Bremer [Presidential Envoy to Iraq and Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator] reopened a bridge that ran along what became known as the Green Zone. Bremer wanted to demonstrate to the Iraqis that our occupation was making their life better. And that bridge had always been closed to public traffic because it was a security risk to Saddam, whose palace was right there. Normally Iraqis could not cross that bridge. Bremer thought he was making a statement to say to the Iraqis, “You can now cross this bridge. See the freedom that this occupation is bringing you.”

But of course, it then created this huge security vulnerability. And the next morning, literally, insurgents set up a rocket launcher on the bridge and launched over 40 rockets from a makeshift launcher—because the other thing that was a problem was that all these depots of old armory were left unguarded. Insurgents were able to raid them and get all kinds of old weapons. These rockets were not reliable. Of the 40 that they tried to shoot, only 20 actually launched and then only about eight actually exploded.

. . . I don’t know what it was about my instinct, but I rolled out of bed the right way—when you have smoke, you stay low to the ground. I put on my Tevas, and I grabbed my phone, which I wore around my neck. I went out to the hallway and it was absolutely mayhem. You can imagine. Everyone’s coming out of their rooms. Everyone’s running towards the exits. . . .

When I reached the stairwell and was about to go down the stairs, I heard someone screaming. And this was Paula Weikle . . . She was an Office Management Specialist who had just started a 90-day TDY [temporary duty] stint in Baghdad. I had just met her the day before. . . . Because her window was shut, the blast broke off concrete and that concrete came and smashed down on her and smashed her arm. She dragged herself across the floor. The time it took me to get out of my room to the elevator bank, she was dragging herself across the floor, reaching up and opening her door—‘cause by then we had doorknobs—and opened her door and called out, “Help me, help me, my arm. Help me, my arm.”

I hear this, and I don’t know what motivated me to do it, but I turned around and I went back. And I had had emergency medical training when I was a GSO [General Service Officer] in Kuwait. . . . That training kicked in and I knew just what to do to stem the bleeding. Her arm was bleeding out, basically. Her arm was crushed. And so, I immediately put pressure in the wound and then I called out to people, “Help me take her downstairs.” And what was so interesting is that people were panicked, it was mass panic, and most of the people staying in the hotel were military. But this is when you see how humans respond. And I just basically looked at these guys and I started ordering them around. And I said, “You get in the front, you get in the back, we have to carry her down the stairs. I need to keep the pressure on the wound.” And she had also had that emergency medical training and so, she would reinforce me, “Yes, keep the pressure on”—like, she knew what to do too. So, the two of us reinforced each other. But she was in such severe pain. I was so scared that I was actually causing more harm than good.

I don’t know how I overcame that fear, but I’m like, “I hope I’m not killing her.” So, I kept thinking like, “I hope I’m not hurting her,” but I also knew I had to keep her from bleeding out, that if she bled out, there was nothing anyone could do. And then, we carried her down bloodied stairs. I don’t know why I thought to put my sandals on, so many people had run out in their bare feet. There was so much broken glass because of the attacks that everybody was cutting their feet. And so, the stairs were bloodied and slippery. There were times we almost dropped her and every time we almost dropped her, she would scream out in pain because it would hurt so much. It was so hard. And luckily, we were on the third floor, so we didn’t have to go down too many flights of stairs, but we finally got her down. I’m in the lobby. The lobby’s mayhem, there tons of people, and I’m just screaming, “I need a medic, I need a medic,” and there’s no medic. . . .

. . . So, finally an ambulance comes. Meanwhile, in the ambulance I have one hand on the wound, and I’m calling the State Department Operations Center because I have my phone around my neck. And I think like, “How well trained am I, that I’m like calling the Operations Center saying, ‘The Al Rasheed has just been attacked. I know of at least one State Department person who’s been injured. There are other injuries. I don’t know who they are yet. We’re on our way to the clinic.'”

Unnecessary Interruption: So, while this was all happening, an issue that was taking place was that all these people needed visas for their Iraqi contacts. And I was the conduit. We had set up a system where they would give me their application, I would scan it and send it to Jordan, they would vet the person, and then come back and say, “Your person can come for an interview on X date.” And there was a lot of pressure to do this fast. So, this woman in the governance team calls me to give me a hard time that she hasn’t been notified yet that her visa applicant is ready. And I just say to her, “Do you realize that the Al Rasheed has just been bombed? Why are you calling me now? Stop, don’t call me about this.” And hung up on her. I was so angry. I’m like, “Don’t you have the judgment to know? People are injured and hurt and dead and you care about a visa for your contact. Couldn’t you call me tomorrow?” And I think she was also stunned, and I think she was scared of me ever since, because it never occurred to her not to bother me. Of course, it didn’t occur to her. She had a job to do and she had blinders on, and I was just like, “Ugh.”

“. . . I basically spent the night terrified, thinking about dying.”

           
Department of State Award for Heroism (2011), Wikimedia Commons
Department of State Award for Heroism (2011), Wikimedia Commons

Survival Instincts: This kind man—I don’t know his name and I’ve never seen him since—comes up and is like, “Can I help you with something?” And I said, “I need a ride and I need a shower and I need somewhere to sit.” So, he actually took me back to his quarters and said, “You can use my shower to clean up,” and let me clean up. And then, I went to a friend’s quarters—she was out of town—and her roommate said, “You can sleep in her bed.” She stayed in a trailer. They had put these trailers all around the palace that was extra housing for people. And my friend worked for a nonprofit organization that was funded by DoD [Department of Defense] doing democracy and civil governance. And so, I slept in her trailer that night, except I couldn’t sleep because it was a trailer and I knew that I had no protection. And so, I basically spent the night terrified, thinking about dying.

. . . Then, I also realized I couldn’t sleep in the trailers. I didn’t feel safe enough. My office was in the convention center that Saddam Hussein built to withstand massive military attacks. It has steel reinforced concrete. I had no windows. I was in a bunker and I had this big office, a little kitchen area, a bathroom, a sort of water closet, and a storage closet, and two doors, a door that opened straight into my office and a door that opened right next to the storage closet. And I said to Pat Kennedy [Chief of Staff, Coalition Provisional Authority], “I’m moving into my closet. I’m going to live in it. It’ll fit a twin bed. It’ll fit a tiny wardrobe and a little table. I need a bed, a bedside table, and a wardrobe.” At the time, no one was allowed to live in the convention center except the military personnel who were billeted there. Pat Kennedy pulled some strings. I don’t know who he had to ask, I don’t know who he had to tell, but he gave me permission to move into my closet and he ordered Kellogg Brown & Root to deliver me that day, a bed, a bedside table, and a wardrobe. And I moved into my closet. Eventually, I was able to go back to my room and get my clothes and my things. I moved into my closet and I lived in that closet for the remainder of the time I was in Baghdad. The benefit to the closet was I could sleep at night. I mean, you couldn’t hear anything that happened outside, and I felt secure enough. . . .

Going back to the bombing: a few things came out of that. One was I was very vocal about the fact that my training had helped me respond and that Paula, also having been trained, was able to respond and that got the attention of quite senior folks in the State Department. The deputy secretary was paying attention to that and that’s when they first started implementing this training for everyone. They said, “Wait, maybe before we send people to Iraq, we should give them this training.” And you know, it’s part of the FACT [Foreign Affairs Counter Threat] training now. It’s part of the counter terrorism—every foreign service professional now gets this emergency medical training that I just coincidentally got in Kuwait and 10 years later used in Iraq. And so, I was very pleased to see that that came out of what happened.

The Aftermath: . . . Since we could bring in more State Department personnel, the State Department decided they really needed to think about how to incentivize people to come to Iraq on temporary orders. And so, they developed an incentive package, because before then there was no incentive, it was just catch-as-catch-can. They sent me an email with the incentive package they were considering and wanted to get my input. At that point, I was the longest serving Foreign Service officer in Iraq. Everybody else who had come before me on temporary duty had already left. I was the one who had been in Iraq the longest. I was not in a good mood. I was really angry. I sent them back a very nasty email and I was just like, “I was not incentivized. Nobody gave me anything extra. In fact, I couldn’t even put my things in storage. I didn’t get HHE [household effects shipped to post]. Nothing, I got nothing. But I came because Maura Harty asked me to. That’s the only reason I am here. And you know what? If you’re going to ask me what I want”—I was very snarky. I said, “I want Secretary Powell to tell my parents that he is going to keep me safe.” I sent off the email. I never met the people who received that email. I have no idea who they are. One day I’d like to find them.

So, a few weeks later, because I’m being given a heroism award, the State Department flies me back to Washington, which was a nice gift, because I really needed a break. And remember, I’m on DoD orders. I don’t have R&R [Rest and Recuperation]. I don’t have breaks. . . . I come back for this award ceremony, which I thought was very nice. It was the normal department award ceremony, the annual award ceremony. Secretary Powell says, “I don’t have time to give out all of the awards.” He goes, “I’m only gonna give two awards. I can’t stay for the whole thing.” And he gave Bill Miller an award for heroism. And then, he gave me my award for heroism. My mom missed the shot, the photograph, and he stopped, he reposed it, and he let my mom get the photograph, which I thought was very generous of him. Before the award ceremony started. Staff came over to me and said, “Are these your parents?”

“Yes.”

“Will they please stand over here?”

I’m like, “Okay.”

He walks off the stage, he walks over to my parents and he says, “I’m Secretary Powell. It’s very nice to meet you. Don’t worry, I will keep your daughter safe.” And he walks out of the room. It was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. I mean, it was—it gave me the strength to go back.

“Resilience gives you that ability to function well during and then to bounce back if not bounce forward after. . . . It’s a state of being.”

Building Change: . . . When I ran the Office of Children’s Issues, I started to really promote resilience as a state of being, as a skill that could be learned. And I started designing resilience training for consular officers. One of the things I noticed after I became pretty skilled myself with resilience and seeing the impact it had on the office, was that a lot of senior consular officers had low resilience. Over a 20 to 25-year career, little by little, their resilience would erode. And then, by the time they are a senior manager, they’re cynical, they’re tired, they’re reactive instead of proactive. They can’t problem-solve. They have no memory. They’re crappy leaders. I started to advocate in the Bureau that we need to teach people how to maintain their resilience throughout their career so that it wouldn’t erode, but it would stay stable and then they would be much more effective senior leaders. I designed a resilience training module and started training it in the classes for American citizens service consular officers. The deputy chief of mission course got wind of it and asked if I would give it to that class. And I was becoming known for resilience.

. . . I found myself, for the first time in my career after handshake day without a handshake, without an onward assignment. And word got out to the director of FSI, the Foreign Service Institute, who was really keen on developing a resilience project at the institute. And Ray Leki, who runs a Transition Center, was working on resilience efforts, almost parallel to mine. We were working at that time in a parallel way. And he said, “Beth, come to FSI,” and Nancy McEldowney said, “Come to FSI and be Associate Dean in the School of Professional and Area Studies.” And I said, “I’ll come if you let me do resilience training,” which wasn’t part of the job. And Nancy said, “Fine.” So, I came here as Associate Dean with the understanding, and I give everybody credit. I spent 20% of my time doing resilience and no one objected.

. . . Resilience is the ability to thrive in adversity. It’s the ability to manage during a significant emotional event or a crisis and then to bounce back fully, maybe even bounce forward after the event. For example, the rocket attack in Baghdad. If I had been more resilient before the attack happened, I might not have gotten PTSD as a result of the attack. Resilience gives you that ability to function well during and then to bounce back if not bounce forward after.

Q: Resilience is an individual process?

It’s a state of being. . . . We developed our own model for personal resilience. . . . And we developed what we call the “Seven Cs of Community Resilience.” Then, the last thing we did was develop a model for leaders. How does a leader lead in a way that encourages resilience? And we looked at ambassadors, the ones that worked, the ones that didn’t work. We found champions, we developed trainings. FSI now offers classes in individual resilience and in resilience leadership. They have resilience modules in over 60 existing classes. We helped individual embassies where we’ll do a needs assessment, determine the levels of resilience, and design a training program, and go out and work with that embassy. It’s pretty remarkable what we developed in a few years and at the time, it was just everybody’s part time job. We would meet every week, the four of us every week and hash through these ideas, hash through these concepts because we were developing it from nothing for the foreign affairs community. It was a very specific approach for foreign affairs professionals.

. . . So, what we taught in the ambassador course was an ambassador needs to model good resilience practices. The model for resilience is to have meaning and purpose in your life, to have good self-care—which is exercise, sleep, eat, and rest—have a positive outlook, be an active problem solver, and have social support networks. We would teach the ambassadors that you need to do more than just practice this, the people who work for you need to see you do it. When you go on vacation, stay off your email, because if you’re emailing during vacation, you’re not really resting. If you work during vacation, you’re working, not taking vacation. Put your exercise on your calendar so that people can see it. It’s really talking to them about the importance that they’re role models and the importance of mentoring your staff. And we would focus on DCMs [Deputy Chief of Mission] for this: How do you have a conversation with somebody with low resilience? Talk to them and allow them to talk and help them seek the support they need. Because after Iraq and Afghanistan, we’d have these people coming out with issues and we’d just leave them be and they’d be a wreck. No one would talk to them. No one would mentor them.

. . . I loved SPAS [School of Professional and Area Studies], but I have to admit, I was in that job to do resilience.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
B.S. in Special Education, Penn State University 1982–1985
J.D. from American University 1986–1988
Joined the Foreign Service 1993
Baghdad, Iraq—Consular Officer 2003–2005
Calcutta, India—Principal Officer 2008–2011
Washington, D.C.—Director of Office of Children’s Issues 2008–2014
Washington, D.C.—Associate Dean 2014–2016