The Foreign Service lost one of its own on Saturday when a suicide bomber detonated explosives that killed 25-year-old Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans, three soldiers and one civilian Department of Defense employee in Afghanistan. Smedinghoff was a second-tour public diplomacy officer who was part of a convoy that was delivering donated books to a new school in Zabul Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which also killed three Afghans and wounded four State Department employees. (Another American died in a separate incident and 18 Afghans, including a Taliban commander and women and children were also killed in a U.S. airstrike over the weekend.) She is the first State Department Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to be killed in Afghanistan. (A USAID FSO was killed in August in a suicide bombing.)
A devastating loss like this one reverberates throughout the Foreign Service community. I never met Anne but a former colleague who served with her at the embassy in Kabul and also taught a course she took in Washington said she was “heartbreakingly young, and a nice, lovely person.”
Just last week they took part in a quiz night at the embassy with questions revolving around events that happened on or near Anne’s birthday. I lived in River Forest, the beautiful town just west of Chicago where Anne grew up for three years, and after reading about her life and career, I feel certain that we lost someone who epitomized all that is good about the Foreign Service.She joined the Service right out of college and volunteered to serve in Kabul after a tour in Venezuela. According to press reports, she wasn’t the type of person who wanted to remain in the safety of the compound. She looked forward to opportunities like the one that presented itself on Saturday and hoped to make a real impact during her year in the country, which was nearly over. Reporters praised her as someone who was responsive and easy to work with.
FSOs who serve in danger posts like Kabul and Baghdad often get plumb follow-on assignments to cushy posts but Anne actively bid on Algiers, despite the tenuous security situation there and the lack of creature comforts. According to a friend who was quoted in the Chicago Tribune, she felt that the places she was needed the most were the “scary” and “dangerous” places, not the posh ones.
She had a taste for adventure. Smedinghoff biked across the U.S. (to raise money for cancer research), Australia and from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea and she loved to travel. Her neighbors in River Forest have lined the block with white ribbons and American flags to honor her and her smiling face graced the front page of both the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune Monday. The stories are a fitting tribute to her but it’s a shame that diplomats usually only make the news under tragic circumstances.
Most Americans have at least some awareness of the tremendous sacrifices that our soldiers and their families make for their country but comparatively few are familiar with the Foreign Service and the sacrifices that FSOs and their families make. People might imagine that diplomats spend the bulk of their careers mingling at cocktail parties in Tokyo or Paris but that isn’t the reality of today’s Foreign Service. Most officers spend the bulk of their careers in places most Americans wouldn’t dream of visiting, even on a brief trip, and these days, many are also being sent unarmed into war zones, where they are separated from friends and family members for a year.
I hope that the press coverage of Anne’s life and death somehow serves to remind Americans of the sacrifices that FSOs make for their country and I hope that it inspires, rather than scares off, other young Americans who might be interested in the Foreign Service because our country needs bright, adventurous, patriotic people like Anne representing us overseas.
Inevitably, her death will lead to more debate on whether unarmed diplomats should be serving in war zones, and FSOs in danger spots around the world will now be under even greater security restrictions, making it more difficult for them to be effective. And the security officials at the embassy who approved this trip will unfortunately have to live with the consequences, which will be a very heavy burden for them to carry.
But this isn’t a time for second-guessing; it’s a time for all of Anne’s friends, family members, colleagues and the entire Foreign Service community to grieve the loss of a bright star. The Foreign Service can be something of a dysfunctional bureaucracy but when tragedies like this happen, it unites everyone who has served, past and present. God bless Anne and her family and all those who are serving their country.
On Tuesday, the military identified the three soldiers killed in the same incident as Anne Smedinghoff as 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward of Oak Ridge, Tenn.; 25-year-old Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa of Juncos, Puerto Rico; and 24-year-old Spc. Delfin M. Santos Jr. of San Jose, Calif. They were deployed with the 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.
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[Photo credit: Anne Smedinghoff's Twitter]