The Foreign Service | An Education of Sorts


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Back in the 1970’s, no one hired on with the U.S. Department of State to get rich. My base salary began at around $12,000 per year. I don’t recall many Foreign Service Officers owning homes given that they were out of the country most of their careers. Living overseas had its benefits. Housing was included with an assignment, along with paid home leave airfare. One might ask what did FSO’s spend their money on? The answer: booze, entertainment, eating out, and members of the opposite sex (notice I didn’t include “travel,” akin to a doctor with his stethoscope for a Foreign Service Officer).

<feature photo by Foreign Service Magazine

Enlightening Times

These were busy and enlightening times. In 1976 I hit the ground running. The aforementioned OC Bandits warned that I should immediately apply for an American Express credit card, which I would use extensively. I had never had a credit card before. Intrigued about the thought of delaying debt with a signature, I applied for and received the piece of plastic.

OC/PE issued a blanket travel order for radio techs to support State Department security or S.Y. Sufficed to say, it gave me a broad scope of what I could do to complete my job. After all, our task was to protect our boss Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and terrorists took no prisoners. We also participated in protective details involving the visits of foreign dignitaries such as King Hussein of Jordan (see previous messages).

The money trail for my organization, the Office of Communications/Programs & Engineering—OC/PE—began at the Office of Management & Budget, OMB. The Director of OC spent much of his time on the hill at OMB seeking funds for radio, telephone, and crypto programs under the umbrella of combating international terrorism. Once OMB released the money it got divvied out according to OC/PE’s programs. The support of S.Y. details, of course, got priority (actually, the S.Y. details might have gotten funded separately).

I had to keep track of my own finances. I would apply for a travel advance prior to a detail. Part of the money would be converted into cash and American Express traveler checks. That and my American Express card would finance the trip. Immediately upon return I’d fill out a travel voucher detailing all my expenses. Generally, my travel orders authorized “per diem,” a fixed amount of money per day, to offset expenses.

The Foreign Service proved to be a great teacher of personal finance. If you didn’t get your shit straight with travel orders, vouchers, per diem and expenses, you could get in a bind with the GAO, the General Accounting Office.

“Hello, may I speak to Mr. Hewlett or Mr. Packard?”

When I had finance questions I’d go to Gil S. a retired U.S. Army guy from New York, of Jewish faith. Gil, with a heart of gold, was an atypical OC Bandit. Although outspoken, he didn’t drink, carouse around with women, or drive recklessly. He wore old sweaters and took pride in the fact that he had gotten to meet both Secretary Henry Kissinger and Secretary Cyrus Vance. He rapidly became an OC legend. Once when he had a problem with a piece of test equipment Gil called the electronics equipment giant Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley, California and asked to speak to either Mr. Hewlett or Mr. Packard. Later, DOS/Personnel, with all its wisdom, assigned Gil—like I said, a man of Jewish faith—to Tehran a Muslim city where he became known as the “Rug Merchant,” but that’s another war story.

An example of Gil’s voucher prowess occurred when rumor’s floated that he had bribed airport officials on an S.Y. detail to an African country. While fellow bandits listened, Gil, with baited breath, admitted that he had to do it to get a key piece of radio equipment in country that he brought in his luggage. The OC Bandit’s shit-eating grins supported his audacity. When Gil said he had claimed the bribe on his voucher, the radio lab quieted. When he said the voucher got approved, jaws dropped.

With the hiring on of new OC techs, technical education had been built into OC/PE’s budget. During the first six months I attended classes at RCA Communications in Washington, Pennsylvania, General Electric Mobile Communications at Lynchburg, Virginia, and at the U.S. State Department.

SECSTATE | Serving Dark Africa

I joined four other techs (members of the OC Bandits) for a two-week HF radio course at the State Department. OC/PE had engineered and deployed the Collins HF radio network in West and Central Africa. Now it had to be maintained in places that never showed up on the tourist radar, like Douala, Niamey, and Yaounde.

The initial teacher from Collins Radio in Ames, Iowa came unprepared to teach the OC Bandits the inner workings of a radio teletype system that could provide telegraphic links between the incoming message center at State–SECSTATE– and darkest Africa.

The Bandits ambushed him. A day later his replacement showed up—a Collins Radio engineering ace. It helped that he started off with good war stories. The engineer/teacher had spent a few years in West Africa and understood the true meaning of the term “bribery.” He not only survived the bandit’s technical scrutiny, he gained their respect. In the process he extracted a small revenge as he took us through each and every circuit in the complex radio telegraphic system.

Parking Meter Wars

A major distraction during the eight hour per day radio course involved our vehicles. District parking spaces were limited, especially around the State Department. The meters generally timed out after two hours and had to be fed. The weather froze my coffee moistened mustache. District traffic cops—confronted by the weather, too—took satisfaction by applying the “jaws of death” on a vehicle’s wheel. The fine to remove the jaws could seriously limit a bar bill. The bandits worked out a deal with the Collin’s teacher to schedule breaks a few minutes before the parking meters timed out. This represented a prime example of the 40% part (the bullshit part) of Norm Bates’s 60/40 hypothesis (see tag: 60/40 hypothesis).

The “jaws of death,” and the Arctic-like District weather didn’t bother one member of the OC Bandits. He had his vehicle parked for him every morning in the State Department’s underground garage reserved for high-level officials… He didn’t pay a dime…

He was Special Agent Martin V…

(“Special Agent” to be continued)

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