The Vital Role of the Department of State During A Crisis Abroad

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A National Guard member and U.S. Embassy official sit on the floor of a cargo plane assisting U.S. citizens during an evacuation following Hurricane Irma
A U.S. Embassy official assists during an evacuation following Hurricane Irma

The Vital Role of the Department of State During A Crisis Abroad

Most U.S. citizens probably don’t spend much time thinking about the role of the U.S. Department of State, even though our actions have a direct impact on their safety and welfare. On any given day throughout the world, you’ll find State personnel -- which include U.S. Foreign Service officers, Civil Service employees, contractors, and our crucially important Locally Employed Staff colleagues -- engaged in the myriad activities that both keep our nation and citizens safe and facilitate the travel to and from our country, oiling the wheels of the global economy.

The devastation that unfolded these past weeks in the Caribbean in the wake of three major hurricanes brings into sharp focus the important role the Department of State plays in protecting the welfare and interests of U.S. citizens living in Antigua & Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Dutch Sint Maarten and French St. Martin, St. Barthélemy, and Dominica, in particular. The Department of State spearheads U.S. government efforts to protect U.S. citizens not just in the Caribbean but anywhere a catastrophe has hit, such as Lebanon, Haiti, and Japan in the past.

Any U.S. response to a crisis of such magnitude requires a “whole of government” approach involving the vital contributions of numerous interagency partners. It couldn’t be done without them, especially our Department of Defense colleagues who are a vital actor in any major evacuation operation. But since the birth of our nation, it is the men and women of the Department of State who lead the way in protecting the interests of our citizens residing and traveling abroad. It is a massive undertaking that I have witnessed firsthand in recent weeks as I worked with hundreds of my colleagues serving in task forces in Washington, on the ground in the affected islands, and at neighboring U.S. embassies and consulates.

We are the folks you call when things go wrong abroad. When a U.S. citizen is arrested, is a victim of a crime, or dies abroad, you can be sure that a consular officer is available to offer assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at one of our U.S. embassies, consulates, or consular agencies abroad. But it is during times of major crisis involving war or natural catastrophe in a foreign land where the rubber meets the road and all of our resources and experience are brought to bear. Most of the time it isn’t like in the movies-- we don’t swoop down in helicopters-- but we do sometimes take extraordinary measures to get the job done. In the British Virgin Islands, a consular team drove around heavily damaged Tortola in search of fellow U.S. citizens seeking evacuation. If that isn’t Hollywood, it’s still pretty cool.

Department of State employees consider it an honor to serve the public and protect U.S. interests abroad in some of the most difficult environments on earth. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center in April 2017, only 20 percent of U.S. citizens today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right. That is indeed a dismal and discouraging figure. But in times of crisis or through everyday work, many of my colleagues in the Department of State hope to change this perception. I hope the effort is successful, because they should have reason to be proud of their government.

About the Author: William Bent is a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Department of State. He currently serves at the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown, Barbados