In the State Department building lobby in Washington are three large marble plaques listing the names of U.S. diplomats who "lost their lives under heroic circumstances while serving the American People abroad." The list had 236 names until this week when four more names joined the ranks of America's diplomatic heroes. U.S. Ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens, and three of his colleagues were murdered as they came under attack at our Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Many people think of diplomatic life as glamorous and comfortable, and perhaps in some places it is. I don't know myself. I served in southern Africa during the struggle against apartheid, in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet system and the rise of the Russian Mafia, in Israel during the Palestinian Intifada and Saddam's Gulf War SCUD missile attacks, and in Afghanistan through most of the current conflict.
I've worn body armor and a helmet for a good part of my life overseas and I'm not an exception. Most of my diplomat colleagues have memories of dangerous incidents, near misses, frightening travel incidents and threats to them and their families This reflects a new reality. The causes of death of our diplomats have changed over the years.
Inscriptions on the memorial plaques such as "William Palfrey, Lost at Sea — 1780; Abraham Hanson, African Fever — Liberia 1866; have been replaced by "J. Theodore Marriner, Murdered — Beirut 1937; Thomas Wasson, Shot by Sniper — Jerusalem, 1948."
The Vietnam era took a heavy toll. Thirty-seven diplomats were killed in that war, "John Paul Vann, Helicopter Crash — Vietnam, 1972."
American diplomats increasingly became the target of terrorists: "Cleo Noel and George Moore, Assassinated by terrorists — Sudan 1973; John Patterson, Kidnapped and murdered — Mexico, 1974; Francis Meloy, Assassinated by terrorists — Beirut, 1976; Adolph Dubs, Kidnapped and killed by terrorists — Kabul 1979; Dennis Keogh, Killed in Bombing — Namibia 1984."
Behind each incident lies a story of honor, courage and sacrifice.
Some of the inscriptions are a little misleading. Ambassador Bob Frasure was a friend of mine. His plaque reads: "Automobile Accident, Bosnia, 1995." In reality, Bob was in war-torn Bosnia helping Dick Holbrooke negotiate an end to that conflict when Bob's armored personnel carrier slid off a collapsing dirt road and rolled hundreds of feet into a deep ravine: "Automobile Accident."
As American diplomats have moved into increasingly dangerous environments, we have built fortress-like buildings meant to protect them but these discourage contact with the local population. It's something diplomats worry about. Sometimes they choose to ignore the risks in order to do a better job.
So when disturbances loom, many diplomats choose not to "hunker down" and wait out the trouble, but to get to where the problem is and see what can be done to protect Americans and our nation's interests.
So it was with Ambassador Johnson and his team this week. They were in Benghazi because that was where the disturbances seemed to be brewing. They chose to take that risk to try to protect us, and they paid the ultimate price. As much as any of our brave soldiers, they deserve our deepest gratitude.
Jack Segal is a retired U.S. diplomat living in Traverse City. He chairs the International Affairs Forum of Traverse City and teaches extended education classes on foreign policy issues at Northwestern Michigan College.