In 1996, the United States Senate designated the first Friday in May as “American Foreign Service Day.” It is on this day that members of the Foreign Service around the world come together to recognize the work that our nation’s diplomats do. It is also a day to pay tribute to those we’ve lost; today at high noon, we at U.S. Embassy Canberra gathered at the chancery flagpole for a few moments of reflection and remembrance.
Standing in a semicircle, we faced a black-draped table on which sat framed photographs of some of our colleagues who have died overseas – from illness, accidents, and terrorist attacks. The autumn wind blew and snapped the flags as dry leaves skittered across the pavement. Looking at their earnest faces, faces that look a lot like ours, was a sobering reminder of the meaning of what we are doing, beyond the day-to-day.
Every morning, American Foreign Service Officers at 270 posts around the world get up and go to work to protect and advance America’s interests. You may not see us, but we’re out here, more than 16,000 of us.
We conduct trade deals, protect America’s borders, advocate for American agriculture, explain our foreign policy, engage with local cultures, assist American citizens in crisis, and so much more. We serve far from the comforts of home, sometimes in poor or dangerous conditions, and sometimes even apart from our immediate families.
We serve because we love our country, and we believe in our Constitution, which unites us across party and ideological lines. We serve because we want to see a prosperous, safe, strong United States.
Sometimes we don’t come home. This is what it means to fly the flag, and each of us knows this when we take that proud oath. Even when our work is not understood or appreciated, those of us who “get it” keep plugging along, moving the ball down the court when we can, and when we can’t, standing strong with our allies against the adversaries of freedom, democracy, and a rules-based order.
In the lobby of the Department of State C Street building in Washington stands the Memorial Wall. First installed in 1933, the inscription on the plaque reads, “Erected by members of the American Foreign Service Association in honor of diplomatic and consular officers of the United States who while on active duty lost their lives under heroic or tragic circumstances.”
I remember standing somberly with my colleagues in the diplomatic lobby during A-100, gazing at the Memorial Wall. I said a silent prayer to God to watch over our class and keep us safe during our service.
I think all of us when confronted with such a moment pray that it won’t happen to us, and yet we know it could. And we offer our respect to those who have gone before us, those who understood that this job could mean writing a blank check, up to and including your life, for your country. And it rarely comes to that, but for those for whom it did, we thank you for your brave service, and commit to continuing the shared work we all believe in. No day shall erase you.
The Memorial Wall lists the names of all 250 American diplomats to date who have died serving their country. If you would like to read the names, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) maintains a list here.