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Dangerous Postings: Life in the Foreign Service

American forces are evacuating thousands of U.S. citizens from war-torn Lebanon. But smaller evacuations take place quite often and receive barely a mention in the media -- the evacuation of families and non-essential personnel from U.S. embassies in countries that have become dangerous.

Close to 8,000 diplomats serve in posts like Baghdad, Kabul, Karachi and Jakarta -- all frontiers in the war on terror.

At first glance, life inside an embassy can seem very ... American. The canteens sell tuna melts and chicken nuggets; fliers advertise pickup softball games.

But the barred windows and armed guards are reminders that the Foreign Service is not like living in America. Overseas, staying safe becomes a way of life.

In bygone days, the Foreign Service wasn't such a risky career. Phyllis Oakley remembers when she and her husband Robert lived in Sudan. It was his first diplomatic posting and the year was 1958.

"The cook and I shared a bicycle," Phyllis Oakley says. "And we didn't have a car yet. He'd take the bicycle to the market in the morning and then I'd ride the bicycle around town going to play bridge or see other people...."

Today, Khartoum is so dangerous that families aren't allowed to live there anymore. Phyllis Oakley, a former assistant secretary of state, says the world she knew is gone forever.

"Well, the thought of an American diplomat's wife these days riding a bicycle around a city like Khartoum -- it just wouldn't happen."

Robert Oakley, the former ambassador to Somalia, Zaire and Pakistan, says this isn't the first wave of anti-Americanism.

"I think it's probably more profound now," he says. "You have it rooted in Islamic extremism and the terrorism of al-Qaida and affiliated groups around the world make it much more difficult than it was before."

He says the problems of the Middle East and Iraq provide a "double whammy," inciting anti-Americanism.

After the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the State Department quickly beefed up security at its embassies worldwide. Now, getting into any American embassy, either to go to work or to conduct business, is a time-consuming process, with layers of security checks. But diplomats know that their buildings are still prime targets for terrorists.

Erin Eussen, a consular officer at the embassy in Amman, Jordan, recalls one scare:

"The Marine got on the loud speaker and said, 'This is not a drill. This is not a drill. Duck and cover.' And all I could think about were my children. My son was sleeping when I left. I didn't kiss him good-bye, and I just was praying that I would make it out OK. And thankfully, seven minutes later we found out that one of the local guards tripped a perimeter alarm, and that caused the alarm to go off."

If a country gets too dangerous or if a natural disaster strikes, the State Department sends families and non-essential personnel back to Washington. The order to evacuate often comes with little warning. Families may get few hours to pack and gather important documents, like school records, before leaving their homes.

Evacuations last an average of four months. In 2004, there were 10 evacuations. Most evacuees choose the live in the Washington, D.C., area so that they can continue to work at the department headquarters. They must find temporary housing, and their children have to attend new schools, often joining classes mid-year. Many people have to buy all new clothes and other essentials, like dishes, during their time in the States.

More and more, diplomats are assigned to serve in countries that are too dangerous for their families. There are about 700 of these unaccompanied positions, in places such as Kabul and Bujumbura, Burundi. There is also a growing number of hardship posts. Under the transformational diplomacy initiative, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is redeploying diplomats from posts in Europe to political hot spots, like Nigeria and Lebanon.

Experts expect this trend to continue.

"Employees today come into the service knowing that they will almost certainly have to serve in those kinds of places at least once if not many times during their career," says Steve Kashkett, the vice president of the American Foreign Service Association. "And this is now a requirement for promotion and for eventual competition for the senior service."

To fill positions at these posts, the State Department offers a range of incentive packages that include danger pay as well as regular trips back to the United States. But some days those benefits don't compensate for the stress.

Maya Dietz is vice consul at the embassy in Iraq, and never leaves Baghdad's protected Green Zone.

"There have been occasions where mortars have gone off quite close to our building, and from my desk I have a window that I can physically see the glass bend in," she says.

"And our safe haven room is where we go when things get quite serious. There are three walls underground, and the walls are quite thick. We've had occasions when we are sitting in that room, and even those walls will shake."

Despite the dangers, the State Department isn't having any trouble finding new recruits. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, applications to the Foreign Service are up. This year, 17,000 people took the written exam. The department estimates it will accept only 340 new officers this fall.

NPR's Megan Meline is a Foreign Service spouse whose husband has served in Dar es Salaam and Manila. This story was produced by Elaine Heinzman.

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Megan Meline