Trekking Through Parts Unknown: Women Couriers Today -- Part II

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March is Women's History Month. 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of DSS Couriers.
March is Women's History Month. 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of DSS Couriers.

Trekking Through Parts Unknown: Women Couriers Today -- Part II

The Diplomatic Security Service honors the women of the Diplomatic Courier Service in the second of a two-part series in commemoration of Women’s History Month, March 2018.

Since the end of the First World War, Diplomatic Couriers and their earlier iterations have helped ensure the secure delivery of classified U.S. diplomatic material to U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the world. However, it was not until November 01, 1972, more than half a century after the creation of the Diplomatic Courier Service, when the first woman courier, Susan Shirley Carter, reported for duty.

Today the ranks of women couriers continue to grow -- not only in numbers but also in leadership roles and impact:

  • Nearly one-quarter of the 100+ couriers are female;
  • Three of the recent recipients of the distinguished “Courier of the Year” Award have been women (Shane Morris, 2011; Monique Atwood, 2013; and Ummi Myelle, 2017);  
  • Female couriers hold approximately 30 percent of the Diplomatic Courier Service leadership roles.
  • The United States has the largest professional corps of diplomatic couriers in the world.

2017 Courier of the Year Ummi Myelle at the courier warehouse in Virginia, May 2017.

Ummi Myelle, 2017 Courier of the Year, serves as an example of the leadership contributions that many women couriers make today. Last year, Myelle provided support to teams that had recently deployed to several high-threat posts from the Marine Security Augmentation Unit and the Office of Mobile Security Deployments. She also participated in the Classified Pouch Modernization Effort, an ongoing $10 million project that includes streamlined pouching processes, classified pouch security and vault upgrades, safety and material handling equipment enhancements, and upgraded communications and logistics technology. In particular, she supervised warehouse and office upgrades at theWashington Regional Diplomatic Courier Division.

Myelle’s two colleagues -- Shane Morris and Monique Atwood -- share their memories of the challenges they faced during the year they were nominated for the prestigious honor, Courier of the Year.

While Some Were Getting Out, We Were Getting In

On November 30, 2011, Diplomatic Courier of the Year for 2011 Shane Morris takes a slow turn over a football stadium in Cairo, Egypt, aboard a U.S. Air Force plane. (U.S. Department of State)

Shane Morris Sparks – 2011 Diplomatic Courier of the Year:

The calendar said winter, but it was Arab Spring in the Middle East and by mid-March, strife and airport road blocks had shuttered the diplomatic couriers’ hub in Manama, Bahrain.  Our first task, just as the U.S. Embassy Sana’a began discussing the potential need for the evacuation of its personnel, was to establish a safe and secure route for pouches out of Yemen, clearing the embassy of its backlog of classified material in one flight.  We had the Middle East delivery system up and operating within a month. 

The job of creating a new delivery system for U.S. posts across the Middle East from scratch was huge.  The reason the Manama hub exists is that the region is so difficult to service from anywhere else.  Normally we have time to slowly make careful decisions and to prepare posts.  This had to happen immediately, so that was quite a challenge. 

The new routes system required couriers on the tarmac in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and getting that done was a second challenge.  Cargo flight services and tarmac access through the UAE were unprecedented.  This allowed us unlimited supply transit.  We went from servicing the region with a small, chartered plane that could hold 1,000 kilograms total for five posts to delivering 5,000 kgs at one time to the UAE alone, the equivalent of a large truckload.  

The grease that made the rugged, rapid transformation work so smoothly was the fact that the Diplomatic Courier Service is full of renaissance people, people who can do anything and will do anything to help out.  They work with everyone from ground crews to ambassadors, everything from forklifts to business class lounges, and it makes for a really great team.  Being a courier is by far the best job in the Department of State, a full-time adventure.

Negotiating Pouch Delivery During Unstable Times

After the attacks on several Department of State facilities in September 2012, Diplomatic Courier Monique Atwood, then assigned to the Frankfurt Regional Diplomatic Courier Division (FRDCD), was tasked with helping members of the Office of Mobile Security Deployments (MSD) get their equipment to Tunis, Khartoum, and Tripoli.

Monique Atwood, 2013 Diplomatic Courier of the Year, inspects 2,500 kilograms of classified crate pouches prior to dispatch on an overland trip. The material was in support of a security upgrade at the U.S. Embassy Sarajevo (U.S. Department of State)

Monique Atwood – 2013 Diplomatic Courier of the Year

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations delineates the absolute inviolability of diplomatic pouches as they move from country to country, meaning no screening or inspection of any kind. In spite of the strict regulations governing diplomatic pouches, certain countries still demand to screen those pouches. This is when communication skills become paramount. It takes time to build good working relationships, especially in countries that operate under different cultural norms. If local officials choose to be obstructive, there is little recourse but to push the negotiations to a higher level, something that happens all too often. All the while, we must display the utmost tact as representatives of the U.S. government. When the airline of a foreign government would not allow our MSD team on board a flight without first x-raying their equipment, I reached out to our local freight forwarder, with whom I had a long-standing affiliation. After some intense negotiations with the airline, we were finally granted a waiver, and I then worked with posts and their local Ministries of Foreign Affairs to clear Customs and secure all necessary authorizations for the importation of MSD gear.

During that time I was also juggling multiple positions, functioning as an operations officer at the busy Frankfurt courier division, directing the work of other couriers and serving as fiscal analysis officer overseeing the finances of FRDCD. I also worked with my colleagues and counterparts in coordinating a high-profile delivery of two tractor trailers full of security

equipment headed to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. We also devised an overland route from Frankfurt to Kyiv to deliver over 10 tons of classified material for the U.S. Embassy there.

DSS, and the Diplomatic Courier Service specifically, is a close-knit community of hard-working individuals. Working in DSS has made me immensely proud to serve our country as part of a great team. 

Throughout 2018, the Diplomatic Courier Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Read more about the Diplomatic Courier Service and its proud history here and follow DSS on Facebook and Twitter for the #CouriersAt100 hashtag.

About the Author: Barbara Gleason serves in the Public Affairs Division of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.