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updated: 9/14/2012 5:03 AM

Danger ever present, say ex-diplomats from suburbs

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  • Former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana John Kordek now lives in Arlington Heights and said the turmoil American embassy workers in the Middle East are facing in recent days is something the diplomatic staff trains for.

       Former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana John Kordek now lives in Arlington Heights and said the turmoil American embassy workers in the Middle East are facing in recent days is something the diplomatic staff trains for.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • John Kordek, former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican with a diplomatic delegation.

      John Kordek, former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican with a diplomatic delegation.
    Courtesy of John Kordek

  • John Kordek, former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, with former President Ronald Reagan.

      John Kordek, former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, with former President Ronald Reagan.
    Courtesy of John Kordek

  • John Kordek, former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, meets with a diplomatic delegation in the Oval Office with former President George H.W. Bush.

      John Kordek, former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, meets with a diplomatic delegation in the Oval Office with former President George H.W. Bush.
    Courtesy of John Kordek

  • Lebanese Muslim protesters burn the American and Israeli flags Thursday during a protest about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon.

      Lebanese Muslim protesters burn the American and Israeli flags Thursday during a protest about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon.
    Associated Press

  • An Egyptian protester rests during clashes near the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Protesters clashed with police near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for the third day in a row. Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi vowed to protect foreign embassies in Cairo, where police were using tear gas to disperse protesters at the U.S. mission. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

      An Egyptian protester rests during clashes near the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Protesters clashed with police near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for the third day in a row. Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi vowed to protect foreign embassies in Cairo, where police were using tear gas to disperse protesters at the U.S. mission. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

  • Egyptian protesters clash with riot police near the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Protesters clashed with police near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for the third day in a row. Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi vowed to protect foreign embassies in Cairo, where police were using tear gas to disperse protesters at the U.S. mission. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

      Egyptian protesters clash with riot police near the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Protesters clashed with police near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for the third day in a row. Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi vowed to protect foreign embassies in Cairo, where police were using tear gas to disperse protesters at the U.S. mission. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

 
 

It was months into his retirement before former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana John Kordek stopped taking the security precautions to get to and from his Arlington Heights home that he honed during his decades of diplomatic foreign service.

"You learn in the foreign service that you never leave at the same time and you never drive the same route," he said. "When I retired and came home to Arlington Heights, it took some time to alter that thinking."

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Kordek, who served as ambassador to the African nation from 1988 to 1990, said security of American workers at embassies abroad is one of the highest priorities.

"Security was insinuated and emphasized," he said.

But Kordek added the recent attacks on U.S. embassies in the Middle East and the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens shows diplomacy posts abroad always come with an element of danger.

"I had a security detail of over 60 people and guards who patrolled my house at night," Kordek said. "I drove an armored vehicle when I was stationed in Poland. In El Salvador, I carried a weapon and went to a special school to learn how to fire all types of weaponry. It sounds like a frightening life, but you don't think of things like that or you couldn't function."

There is no truly safe assignment working at an American embassy in a foreign country, former foreign service workers from the U.S. State Department said.

"I would say no, there aren't any, especially now," reflected Cori Alston, a former consular officer for the State Department in Haiti and Denmark who used to live in Oak Brook and now resides near Atlanta. "You're a target. You represent everything that people who don't like America are against. You could be kidnapped or people could just kill you because it sent a message."

When she was stationed in Haiti from 2004 to her eventual evacuation in 2005, Alston said she was allowed to go to places like the grocery store only on specific days and at certain times.

"We would hear shots being fired right outside the embassy windows," she said.

She was in Denmark when anti-Western sentiments in the Islamic community flared after a Danish newspaper printed a cartoon depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed wearing a bomb in his turban.

"We had meetings where they'd remind us of security procedures, but I didn't notice anything big in the way of protection," she recalled. "You just keep your mouth shut, lay low and you become very aware of your surroundings. One of the biggest things I noticed is that you become a little more anxious and you're more alert, and that drains you."

American embassies can't be hidden, Kordek said. They serve so many purposes, the location of the embassies are universally advertised to assist those in need of assistance. That makes them an easy and repeated target.

Stevens' death was the sixth such of a U.S. Ambassador abroad, the first since 1979 when U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs -- who also coincidentally once called Arlington Heights home -- was killed in Kabul.

Osama bin Laden was introduced to national scorn, when his little-known al-Qaida organization claimed responsibility for the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of two American embassies in Africa that killed more than 200 people, including 12 American citizens.

"When I visited my son at his office in Washington, D.C. there's a wall in the State Department with the names of people who have died and it's a very sad, sobering reminder of the service the State Department does on our behalf," said Betty-Ann Moore, the former Libertyville Township supervisor whose son Jonathan has been posted at several embassies throughout Eastern Europe since the early 1990s.

Moore said she and her family are acutely aware of the dangers faced by those working in the foreign service, even though she believes most Americans are not.

"It always concerns me that the public seems unaware that the State Department and foreign service officers are sworn to serve, and that oath commits them to any level of service the same as anyone in the military," she said.

But despite all the perils of life working at a foreign embassy, the former diplomatic workers seem almost wistful when recalling their time abroad.

"You romanticize a lot of it and forget about the hard stuff," Alston said.

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