Veterans of Foreign Wars
Working for the Department of State is kind of like being in high school. In high school, you have your classes, and you have your extracurricular activities, which are meant to make you stand out from the pack in order to get you into a good college or land you a solid job. In the State Department, despite the fact that you have a certain degree of job security once you’re hired, every three years or so you have to start looking for a new assignment, which is basically the equivalent of applying for a new job. Scoring that cushy position in Cyprus or the high-profile gig traveling with the Secretary is contingent upon the contents of your Employee Evaluation Report. An impressive evaluation that’s likely to get you one of the aforementioned dream jobs is contingent upon more than just doing your job well but on doing your job, some other people’s jobs, and a few extracurricular activities exceptionally well — all while not upsetting the apple cart.
I was down with this (apple cart upsetting aside). Before even leaving training in Washington DC, I had already met with leaders in the gay, women’s, and environmental communities at the Department of State. So, it was sort of a no-brainer that in addition to my regular job at the US Embassy in Berlin, I became the Post Representative for Gays & Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, established a chapter of the Federal Women’s Program, joined the Green Team, and was later appointed Mission Contact for Women, Peace & Security Initiatives. None of these roles felt like obligations, nor was I doing them just to boost my employee evaluation. For me, they were opportunities. In fact, the opportunity to promote a progressive agenda in an institution that historically has not been perceived as a purveyor of progressivity was the reason I joined the Foreign Service in the first place. Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me. I didn’t just upset the apple cart. I upended it.
When I traveled to Florida for the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, where the short for my animated series Hypocrites & Strippers screened, the friend who put me up for the weekend was a former neighbor, colleague, and accomplice in my apple cart upsetting at the US Embassy in Berlin. My first night in Tampa we fell into that talking late into the wee hours of the morning routine that many of us succumb to when seeing an old friend for the first time after a long absence. I guess somewhat inevitably, the conversation turned to Berlin and the Embassy. My friend stayed in Berlin after my departure. So, she caught me up on life at the Embassy after I left, especially the people and things that had frequently made doing our jobs, never mind our extracurricular activities, so challenging. Then the conversation turned to life after leaving State.
When you retire from the Department, there’s a support system set up to transition you back into “civilian life.” When you resign, as I did, not so much. I was shocked and comforted by how deeply the reminiscing and commiserating impacted me. I noticed my friend using the word “we” when talking about the Department, even though I had resigned. It brought to mind a friend at USAID who always says “you guys” when talking to me about State. Inevitably, I say, “I’m not one of them. I resigned,” but I’m not sure it registers. Perhaps it’s like being Jewish. You can leave the religion, but it doesn’t leave you. Likewise, you can leave the Department, but it doesn’t leave you.
I never wanted to be in the military. It’s not something I can relate to on any level, but after my trip to Tampa and recent conversations with former co-workers who have since left State, I think I have a bit of insight into the implicit camaraderie that comes from having served. I admire, covet, and adore my artist, theater, political, queer, social justice friends — all parts of my identity that resonate with me far more deeply than having worked at the Department of State. However, there’s a certain something that eludes even the most empathic ally when conversation turns to my time at the State Department, most of these conversations ending with, “Why did you join anyway?”
When I talk to my DoS alum, I’m not met with discomfort, accusations, glazed over eyes, shocked looks, or an urgent desire to change the subject. There’s an inexplicable calming effect and sense of being understood, at least in this one aspect of a not-so-conventional existence that is my life. I guess I find it surprising that an institution I feel so at odds with can also bring me gifts — beyond the priceless friendships and experiences — in the form of peace and understanding, though it could also be argued that said institution should be credited with being the source of what usurped my calm in the first place.
Being from the United States, the phrase Veterans of Foreign Wars seems kind of redundant to me. We only do foreign wars, unless, of course, you count the ongoing civil war, consisting of things like stop and frisk, immigration law, gun rights, and the war on drugs, cleverly disguised as governmental protections. I’m not much into holidays, and I must admit, Veteran’s Day used to come and go without me even noticing. Since leaving State, however, I like to acknowledge Veteran’s Day by giving a shout out to my Department of State brethren who, more often than not, are dodging metaphorical bullets not literal ones but who are also on the frontlines, putting themselves and their families in harm’s way for their country. Armed with the power of persuasion, they’re charged with dealing with the aftermath of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the annexation of Eastern Ukraine, Donald Trump — with words not weapons. What would happen if we invested more in that front instead of the military one? Though not always lobbying for policies I believe in, it’s a process that has merit. Diplomacy is worth working on, especially in light of the alternatives.
My relationship with the Department of State gives new meaning to the phrase “it’s complicated,” but even if it’s just for one day, I’d like to put complications aside in order to take Veteran’s Day to honor my kin, past and present, in the Foreign Service. Thank you for your time, your commitment, your selflessness, your courage, and your optimism.