My Journey to Being Recognized As A ‘Hero of U.S. Diplomacy’

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U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo presents the Heroes of Diplomacy honor to Elizabeth Slater at the U.S. Department of State on September 13, 2019.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo presents the Heroes of Diplomacy honor to "Elizabeth "Lizzie" Slater at the U.S. Department of State on September 13, 2019

My Journey to Being Recognized As A ‘Hero of U.S. Diplomacy’

On September 13, 2019, Secretary Pompeo launched the “Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy” initiative, which will highlight the stories of modern-day and heroic figures from throughout the Department of State’s rich history.  These individuals have displayed sound policy judgment, as well as intellectual, moral and physical courage while advancing the Department’s mission on behalf of the American people.

This is the story of our first honoree Elizabeth “Lizzie” Slater:

Both my husband and I were serving in the U.S. Foreign Service in 1998 and we made the tough decisions to take on positions at U.S. embassies in separate but neighboring countries. I was set to take on my first foreign service IT Specialist assignment serving as the sole Information Management Specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and my husband Charles would be working at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Less than 48 hours after arriving at the embassy, my life changed forever when a massive truck bomb detonated about 50 feet from me. I was buried under rubble and trapped under a fallen bookcase. By some show of Herculean force, our embassy’s Gunnery Sergeant, Consular Officer and Charge d’ Affaires managed to pull me out. We escaped and made it to the safe haven.  I was assessed by the triage medical team. The end of my nose had been ripped off. It was nothing life threatening, but it needed attention, along with the hundreds of head wounds I had sustained that were still pumping blood.

Yet I knew it was critical that we have communications with Main State in the aftermath of this tragedy. So I set out to see if we had set up a command center to connect with the Operations Center in Washington—we had. The nurse was now dragging me back to get my face attended to. The French embassy doctor who had come to help started gently started removing the hundreds of pieces of glass embedded in my face, head, neck and shoulders and suturing the wounds, quietly reassuring me that I was going to look beautiful when he was finished patching me up.

The next several days were a blur. We turned a colleague’s residence into our new embassy building and worked day and night to get communications back up and running. We ran several miles of cabling over that weekend, giving us the ability to get our normal embassy phone numbers working at a new location. We moved our computers and servers and installed a temporary area network. We installed satellite communication systems so we could communicate via the Diplomatic Cable system. We installed a temporary telephone switch so that everyone could have phones at their desks.

The bomb went off on Friday August 7, 1998. Just three days later, on Monday, August 10, 1998, we re-opened our embassy at the new location.

Several months later, I transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to reunite with my husband and five-year old son, and pursue needed medical care. However, the work didn’t stop there. 175 Information Technology contractors were on the ground in Nairobi to help that embassy rebuild its communication systems. Having undertaken that challenge in Dar es Salaam, I was put in charge of leading this large team to do the same thing. Although I hadn’t been in the Nairobi bombing, I was touched by colleagues who understood that I too was a survivor and felt a connection to the work they were doing.

What’s this “hero” designation feel like? A little awkward to be honest! My career with the State Department spans 39 years from when I first started working in Mozambique during its bloody civil war, to just now finishing four years in Cairo where things felt pretty calm even though we had a stream of random IEDs and other attacks. In between was Kabul, Baghdad, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, and even one rugged year trying to find parking in Washington, DC.

Over the course of those nearly four decades, I’ve worked with thousands of heroes. They were my mentors, my staff, my ambassadors, and my colleagues.  It is the State Department who leads all these wonderful people in America’s common purpose.

Within the State Department, our culture is to do our work quietly and then quickly fade into the background, and I think that has hurt us at times when we need to convince our constituency of the value of diplomacy. It is what creates our farmers’ and manufacturers’ ability to sell their goods overseas. It’s what makes the world a safer place for Americans at home and abroad.  It’s what keeps our children from dying on the battlefields of foreign wars.

So it’s flattering to be called a ‘hero’, but I work alongside a really big dynamic team of heroes. I hope that through telling my story, Americans will also learn about the critical work we do every day domestically and overseas. I hope my efforts can inspire my colleagues to tell their stories and the story of diplomacy across the nation.

About the Author: Elizabeth "Lizzie" Slater is the incoming Dean of the School of Applied Information Technology at the Foreign Service Institute at the U.S. Department of State.