June 15, 2009 - If you're a Foreign Service Officer or Specialist or Civil Service employee and you're even vaguely thinking about bidding on a position in Iraq, let me take this opportunity to encourage you to do so. Or at the very least, talk to people who have been to Iraq and see what they tell you.
As of the fall 2007, approximately 1,000 Foreign Service Officers and Specialists (out of about 11,000) have already served or are serving in Iraq, so chances are you know someone who's been here. Most will tell you what a great experience it was, although many will also say they wouldn't do it again. For me personally, it was a hard decision, but I basically decided (please forgive the cliche) it was time for me to step up to the plate. The timing worked for my family; there was a great stretch position available, I knew many of the decision-makers in DC and it just seemed like the right thing to do.
I know I made the right decision, in spite of the hardship to my family, in spite of the long workhours, in spite of the danger, in spite of the fact that I had to share a bathroom with a perfect stranger. (ha ha!) I used to joke around that we should call it "Club Fed" because of the swimming pool, the palm trees, the karoake in the background, etc., but seriously I was glad to have been here, contributing my small part to making a difference. The Embassy does have many creature comforts: I spoke to my husband every day at work; I talked to my kids on the weekends. I had a personal laptop with me so I could "chat" with my teenaged son who is glued to the computer as often as he can. I went home three times on R&R. It wasn't easy, but the issues were not insurmountable. And it gave me a good feeling to have done the right thing.
I joined the Foreign Service to see the world, to experience new cultures and to represent my country. The State Department treated me well for over 20 years and I was glad to be able to go "above and beyond" to give something back. Iraq needs good, qualified, at-grade people in order to make this Embassy and our programs run well. So, if you've even had a passing idea to volunteer, please talk to someone who's been here. I have since retired from the Foreign Service and work in the private sector, but I still recall my days as "Baghdad Anne" with a great deal of fondness.
But don't just take my word for it, seek out co-workers who've been here and done that. Do keep in mind that the situation on the ground changes almost daily. The pictures I've posted are cool, but we returned the Palace to the Government of Iraq on December 31, 2008 and the Embassy is now up and running in its new location. The living and working conditions have radically changed - for the better and things are more like a "normal" Embassy. But the work is still there and they still need good people. Be a pioneer. Bring your dedication, knowledge, skills, your sense of adventure and your sense of humor and be a part of history!
Cheers & Courage,
Anne Aguilera (01 Management)
November 2, 2007 - I attended the now-infamous Town Hall meeting on Wednesday, October 31. What a day to hold such a meeting! It gave the phrase "Trick or Treat" an all-new definition. I was appalled at what I heard - the grandstanding, the tears, the shouting, the focus on "what's in it for me?" etc. It was high drama! Afterwards, I sent the following message to the DG, which I think sums it up for how I see things, having served - as a volunteer - in Baghdad.
My name is Anne Aguilera and I am an 01 Management-coned Foreign Service Generalist. I am married and have two sons, now 12 and 16. I was in Baghdad from July 2006 until July 2007 as the Senior Human Resources Officer.
I look on my year in Baghdad as one of the hardest, yet one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I joined the Foreign Service because I wanted to represent my country overseas; I took an oath to be worldwide available and to go where I was needed and to do what was asked of me. I decided to volunteer for service in Iraq because of a sense of duty and because it was – in my opinion – the right thing to do.
It was very, very difficult to leave my young sons and my husband behind. My entire family suffered because of the separation. But how can I teach my children the meaning of giving if I don’t give? How can I teach them that no one is born "entitled" to anything, but must make sacrifices for the "greater good" unless I make sacrifices myself? Being a Foreign Service Officer was my childhood dream; I have given over 20 years to the Department of State and I have never regretted my time with the Department. I wanted to be able to give something back to the Service.
While being in Iraq was difficult, it was also rewarding – both personally and professionally. My family and I have become much closer and I appreciate them and our way of life so much more now that I am back. They feel the same way as well. Each day is more precious than the last and I value my family and my country more than ever. From a professional standpoint, being in Iraq was challenging and fast-paced, but it gave me a chance to "shine" and show what I could do as an officer. Immediately after returning from Iraq, I was promoted – not simply because I went to Iraq, but because Iraq gave me the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of diplomacy and to be a pioneer.
Neither my family nor I regret my decision – OUR decision – to volunteer for Iraq. I gave up a year in my children’s lives, but our lives were much more enriched for the sacrifice.
It saddens me to see that the Foreign Service has become polarized because of this issue. It saddens me to see that we have come to directed assignments. I hope that other officers step up to the plate and volunteer to serve in Iraq. Have we become so jaded that we no longer believe in "Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather ask what you can do for your country?"
So, if you have been sitting on the fence, waiting to be called up, I hope you will in fact volunteer and forced assignments do not have to take place. But it is very sad that our once-cohesive Foreign Service has become so divided by this issue.