A Traveler In The Foreign Service: A Globetrotting USAID FSO Serving in Afghanistan

USAID Foreign Service Officer David Thompson has lived in eight countries in the last 15 years and has visited countless others, but at 46, his adventures are far from over. He helped reconstruct homes in the immediate aftermath of the war in Bosnia, worked to restore democracy in Honduras after a coup, and has lived through attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul while serving there as the head of USAID’s Democracy & Governance office.

Thompson has been a Foreign Service Officer with USAID (The U.S. Agency for International Development) for nearly ten years and has served in Washington, Albania, Honduras and Afghanistan. The Alexandria native and father of two lives alone in 8 by 12 hooch and is a month shy of his return to the U.S. Thompson spoke to us about his unlikely career path, the challenges of working in Honduras and Afghanistan, and the difficulties and pleasures of working overseas. Thompson’s story also offers a ray of hope to those seeking a career change.

Tell us about the career path that led you to USAID?

My undergrad degree was in architecture. When I was in my mid to late 20s I was trying to sort out what to do with my life. I worked as a carpenter’s helper and built up a body of knowledge about construction. I had an abbreviated stint in the Peace Corps in Tunisia, and then I followed that with a year as a Vista volunteer in Waterbury, CT. In the mid ’90s, I was a construction manager, managing the construction of single-family homes in Northern Virginia and I wasn’t really enjoying my job.I got an interview with an NGO that was hiring people to work in Bosnia. I went into work one day and got laid off, but I went home that day and found out that I got the job in Bosnia.

I ended up staying in Bosnia for two and a half years in the immediate aftermath of the war. I learned about development and post-conflict reconstruction but what I learned was the complexity of development. People don’t just return to their houses – they need jobs and schools and health care so I decided to go to grad school. I went to Duke University’s Center for International Development Policy and got a masters degree from ’98-2000. And I met my wife there; she’s from Brazil and we had common interests.

I ended up getting a job with CHF International in South Africa as a Country Director and we moved to Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 2000. We loved it there but rather quickly we decided we wanted to be closer to home, so we moved to Brazil, where my wife is from. We switched roles in Brazil, where she had the good steady job and I was the one teaching English, and getting a few consultancies here and there.

And that led you to USAID?

I was looking at my enormous student debt and thinking, ‘I have to pay this. I wanted stability and the chance to work with the USG’s premier international development agency, so I applied with USAID, interviewed in 2002 and started with them in March 2003.

What advice do you have for those interested in becoming a USAID Foreign Service Officer?

The current program is called the Development Leadership Initiative. Getting a graduate degree is very essential for this work – especially with the level of competition these days.

I assume it’s also important to have international experience?

Yes. USAID wants to see the ability to live overseas and thrive in different cultures.

And not necessarily just a study abroad in London or Rome, right?

Exactly. It’s best to have experience in the more traditional development countries.

Should new hires at USAID expect to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq at some point in their careers?

Yes. They should expect and be prepared for that.

And if you have kids they don’t spare you, right? Do you have kids?

I do. Two girls. One 8, and the other will turn 6 next week. My wife and two girls live at my mom’s house in Alexandria, in the house where I grew up. It’s a one-year tour here and then my next assignment will be in Washington. It’s tough. It’s a challenge for everyone, not just for people with kids.

I have two kids and I’m not sure if I could leave them. It’s very difficult to leave for a year isn’t it?

We come here because it’s our duty. It’s part of our job. If I could be in Mozambique, I would but this is what the Agency decided for me and I accepted it.

How do you stay in touch with your family?

We have a U.S. phone number, so I speak to my family twice a day. We thought we’d Skype more but it’s kind of easier to call and sometimes less painful than it is to see your family (on cam).

Were you in Afghanistan during the Koran burning incidents?

I was. And I was here for the big attack on the Embassy on September 13. That was crazy because I remember being in a bunker when the attack started and all of the sudden there’s this realization, ‘Oh my God, my wife is going to see this on the news,’ so I wanted to contact her first.

Remind us about the attacks against the embassy that have occurred since you’ve been there.

In the past year, there have been two attacks – once, the American embassy was the target, that was on September 13, and then on April 15, several Western embassies were attacked. There were no serious injuries; we were taken to a safe place by the security guards. In the first incident, some local people in the consular waiting room were hit with shrapnel.

I had left the embassy just minutes before the second attack occurred. I was on my way to a meeting and we ended up having to stay at a base overnight because we couldn’t return to the embassy right away.

What did your wife say when you told her you were going to Afghanistan?

We knew it was coming. If I could have avoided it, I would have. But we get three R & R’s where we get to go home during the year. Our military colleagues are here for a year and only get one two-week R & R. So we’re well taken care of.

We’ve gone through some scary times. The former President Rabbani was assassinated just a stone’s throw from the embassy but I do feel very safe here. The guards here are fantastic. Our colleagues here on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s), some of them are under fire almost daily and they survive, so we can certainly survive here in Kabul.

Has your wife been able to continue to pursue her career?

That’s been the biggest challenge about the Foreign Service for us. I’ve been fortunate to live overseas and expose my kids to these cultures but it’s been much harder on my wife than it has been on me, so I would definitely advise couples to talk about the realities of this career choice.

Tell us about the hooch you live in?

It’s kind of a nice little trailer. I have no complaints, it’s about 8 feet across by 12 feet long, with a nice ¾ bathroom with a shower, and it has a nice TV with the Armed Forces Network. I find it very cozy quite frankly. We have hot water and water pressure.

And what does your job entail there?

As head of the Office of Democracy & Governance, I help manage the USG’s development assistance that goes toward governance, rule of law and anti-corruption, civil society and media development, elections and political processes.

How many USAID missions are there and where should people expect that they could be sent?

There are about 130 posts. For the most part they’ll be in developing countries. There are a few odd positions in places like Tokyo or Rome dealing with donor coordination but not many. You can be in Pretoria, Cairo, New Delhi, or you could be in Chad, or South Sudan or the Congo or Uganda. So there’s a big variety in terms of size of the mission and conditions you live in. The better posts are four-year tours, the more challenging ones would be two-year tours. The really special hardcore posts like Afghanistan are one year.

In the State Department, it’s hard to get promoted if you don’t go to the really tough places. Is it the same in USAID?

Yes, you have to show a willingness to serve in different types of situations and on different continents. People used to stay in one region, like Latin America, and now they really encourage people to break away from that.

Do USAID officers usually get language training?

It depends if their job is language designated. I didn’t get language training for Albania, but I did get 3.5 months of training in Spanish for Honduras.

You were in Honduras at a very momentous time. Tell us about the coup.

I was there in the summer of 2009. My family was in Brazil and I woke up to a coup. All of the sudden, what was known as a sleepy post turned into something else. The U.S. didn’t recognize the de-facto regime. We said, ‘No – this was not a constitutional transfer of power, this was a coup.’ When you take someone out of the country in his pajamas, it’s a coup.

So we responded that way but we didn’t entirely cut off assistance because we didn’t want to put ordinary Hondurans in jeopardy, so we cut off a variety of assistance programs, particularly the programs the government benefited from. Our office supported the embassy’s strategy of trying to help get Honduras back on track through the November 2009 Presidential elections.

Despite all the political instability, were things operating as usual in the country?

Things were pretty normal. There were clashes between police and protesters in the major cities but you didn’t see that unless you went looking for it. The schools were closed for a few tense days but then they reopened, stores stayed open. It was my first coup, so it was crazy just to experience it.

You’ve been outside of the U.S. for a long time now; do you lose touch at all with your hometown and feel rootless?

When I go back to USAID in Washington, I’m going home and that’s the most important thing. After being overseas for most of the time since 1996, I’m happy to be going home. I’ve always had my mom’s house to go back to, so that’s been some stability. We just bought our own house in the DC area, so we do want to put some roots down there. We appreciate going home. The green trees, the sidewalks, the security, the different kinds of food, the playgrounds for kids, the museums – we love it. But that said, I love being overseas, learning about new cultures, studying languages and seeing how my kids respond to that.

What do you love about your job?

The ability to contribute to the policy of our development assistance. Also, the exposure to different countries. It’s an incredible life. If you’re going to be in international development, being with AID is a home; it’s a career.

I will work for USAID for the rest of my career, but every few years, I’ll have a new job in a different place in a new office. I’m constantly learning and that’s really exciting. Even if you’re down on one job, you know that you’re next job will be different.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

(Photos of David and his hooch supplied by USAID, photo of the Afghan sunrise in Kandahar via the US Army on Flickr, Afghan cycler via the US Embassy Kabul, and Honduras coup photo by David Nallah on Flickr.)