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Yesterday, I read a letter to the editor in my hometown newspaper.  May 5 was Foreign Affairs Day, a day when Americans are asked to honor the people who serve our country overseas.  The letter just reminded people of our commitment to public service and the sacrifices we make.  It was nice.  Then I read the first – and so far only – comment:  “I applaud Rex Tillerson’s call for a 9 percent reduction in force.  The State Department has gotten out of control.”

The State Department has gotten out of control.  Huh.  Okay.  I’m guessing that the commenter doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about State, so I thought it might be good to demonstrate just how “out of control” we are.

  • Out of control State Department employees like me spend much of our careers living and working overseas, and no – we’re not sipping champagne in Europe.  I mean yes – of course we have embassies and consulates in Europe, but we also have them in other parts of the world that aren’t so nice.
  • And speaking of Europe, many Americans love to travel to Europe and unfortunately, shit happens.  You lost your passport, you pocket was picked, you got sick and needed to be hospitalized, or – heaven forbid – something worse.  Out of control foreign service officers like me are there for you.  We’ll take your call at all hours of the night (believe me, I have); we will print a new passport for you; we will arrange for you to get money if yours was stolen; if you’re destitute, we will find a safe place for you to lay your head until you can get on your flight home; we will go to the hospital to visit you, contact your family, and help you navigate this foreign hospital system.  If you’re the victim of a crime, we will help you report it to the police and stay with you as long as you need us.  If you’re the perpetrator of a crime, we will still be there for you.  We will visit you in jail regularly and make sure you are treated fairly.  We’ll give you a list of attorneys who can help you defend yourself in court.  We’ll be there for you even if you’re guilty.
  • If you’re a bit more adventurous, we’ll be there too.  We will travel eight hours or more over treacherous roads in dangerous territory, putting our own lives at risk, to help secure your release from kidnappers.
  • Hey, you want to expand your business into this new foreign market but you don’t know exactly how to do it?  We can help.  We will put you in contact with reputable business people in your field, set up meetings for you, and help you understand the market.
  • Your kid wants to spend a gap year wandering through South America?  Cool.  We’ve got all kinds of info about every country in the region.  Everything from entry and exit requirements to the political/economic climate to the safety of the airport runways. We can tell you about human rights issues in country; scams you and your kid should be aware of; parts of the country you might want to avoid because of criminal or terrorist activity.  We can tell you about the government, the country’s infrastructure, its medical system, and available social services.

And on and on.  This list is endless.  We can do all this and more because we are there.  Every day.  Away from our friends and families.  We miss birthdays, holidays, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  I know what you’re thinking:  nobody’s forcing you to have this career.  You’re absolutely right and that’s my point.  We chose this life because we love the U.S.  We make the sacrifices and miss those special milestone events because we believe in public service.

Yeah.  We are so freakin’ out of control.

Fifteen years ago today, I started this crazy adventure called the Foreign Service.  I took an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.  And I’ve done that every day since, in places like Albania, Belize, Italy, Nigeria and Washington, DC.  I don’t regret a minute of it.

So next time you hear someone say the State Department is bloated, out of control, or a waste of U.S. tax dollars, think.  Think of this blog post and the many others out there that are also highlighting the great work of State Department and its foreign and civil service.  Think about our commitment to the United States.  Think about what you would do if we weren’t out there.  And then find a State Department employee and say thanks.

You’re welcome.

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First, full disclosure:  I am a government employee and proud of it.  I love working for the U.S. State Department, and I love knowing that what I do has an impact. 

After seven years overseas, I’m back in Washington DC.  Since I live in Arlington, VA and work at Main State in DC, I ride the infamous Metro to work every day.  The system isn’t perfect, but it works for me.  One of the perks I receive is transit benefits.  I filled out one form, which includes my SmartTrip card number and the cost of my roundtrip commute.  Once my application is approved, I will receive a monthly reminder to download the funds to my fare card at one of the kiosks in the metro station.  Excellent.  As long as that fare card is not lost or stolen, I’m golden.

Or not. 

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"...or a photo of me after talking to Metro?

Back in December, I lost my SmartTrip card.  Totally my fault.  I remember using the card one night to get from my gym in Clarendon to my car in Ballston.  I brought the card home.  Then I lost it.  Although I am convinced that the card is somewhere in my condo waiting to be discovered, I realized that I had to move on, cancel it, and get a new card.  Done, done, and done.

Okay, but what about my transit benefits?  I took care of that too.  I updated my application form, sent it in, and received notification of its approval.  I was told that my benefits would resume in February.  Okay, that’s the price I must pay for being careless.  I understand. 

It’s February 2.  Would you like to place a bet on whether I’ve received my benefits? 

This morning I called Smart Benefits, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s office that manages the program, for assistance.   A truly enlightening experience.

  1. Smart Benefits has no record of me in their system.  How is that possible?  I’ve been receiving benefits since October!  Finally, after repeatedly insisting that they should have my records, my records are discovered.  I officially exist.
  2. Clarification:  they have a record of my old card, but not my new one.  How is that possible?  Did you register the new card, ma’am?  When I called to cancel the old one, the customer service agent told me she would automatically register the new one.  And that, my friends, was my fatal error.  I believed her.
  3. Oh, we see your January and February benefits assigned to your old card, just waiting to be downloaded by you.  How. Is. That. Possible?  I cancelled the card in December.  I notified my employer of the cancellation in December.  Why would they (my employer) continue to send benefits to that card and why would they (Smart Benefits) continue to accept them?  Foolish girl, you’re asking logical questions in an illogical world.
  4. Okay.  Fine.  Whatever.  How do I fix this?  I am told that I need to register my new card and inform my employer that I have a new card.  Am I speaking in a vacuum?  Have you heard anything I’ve said?  I was told the new card was registered.  I did inform my employer back in December.  I have proof that they received and approved my notification!  Silly girl, you have to do it again.  Maybe we’ll get it right this time. 
  5. Why don’t you call the Department of Transportation, which administers the program for State, and ask them to transfer your benefits to your new card?  I’ll even give you the telephone number.  Thanks, I guess.  I call and speak to a lovely woman, who is forced to hear this long, painful saga.  She is patient.  She is kind.  She tells me that she cannot help me because my employer insists that all requests for changes be sent to them.  I believe there is a form you must fill out, she says.  Did I go to sleep in the real world and wake up in a Kafka novel?  What have I been saying?  The form was filled out.  Submitted.  Read.  Reviewed.  Approved.  No matter, you must do it again. 

And so, like the demoralized, thoroughly indoctrinated drone that I am I contain my rage, suppress my tears, and fill out the form.  Again.  Praise be!  They have responded already!  I open the email.  It’s an auto-reply message, telling me my message has been received and will be responded to within 5-7 days.

What can I do, but wait?  Wait for them – the infamous “them” – to decide that my existence is real, that my inquiry is worthy of review and investigation, and that I am deserving of a real response. 

Does anyone else feel my pain? 

Tell me I’m not alone! 

Tell me about your crazy “Brazil”-like (look it up) experience with bureaucracy – government or otherwise.

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Unpacking the best U.S. Foreign Service blogs