Special Agent Patricia (Patti) Morton is best known as the trailblazing, first female special agent in what is now known as the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). Yet an equally important legacy rests with her contributions as the first woman DSS Regional Security Officer (RSO).
Two current female special agents—Deputy Assistant Secretary and Assistant Director for Training Wendy Bashnan and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Threat Investigations and Analysis Julie Cabus—discussed her contributions in both roles during the virtual U.S. Department of State’s Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy event honoring Special Agent Morton on July 28, 2020. The event was organized and hosted by the Foreign Service Institute, in collaboration with the National Museum of American Diplomacy and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
“During her service in Vietnam, Patti Morton became the first woman Regional Security Officer, a position that managed security for the embassy,” said Bashnan. “Patti’s dedication to ensuring that the whole embassy community was briefed and trained for emergencies is an early exemplar that we’ve been able to build on.”
“Today, female special agents have seen great success as RSOs and related positions in the 275 U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the world,” said Bashnan. “RSOs manage security programs and provide the first line of defense for U.S. personnel and their families. They also oversee the protection of diplomatic facilities and national security information.”
Cabus said Patti’s trailblazing role as an RSO in Vietnam resonated with her as she reflected on her own experience as the first female senior RSO in Iraq.
“Notably for me was her willingness to take on roles and responsibilities and find a way to make them work. What struck me in particular regarding my experience in Iraq and her experience in Vietnam, was her commitment to emergency preparedness and personal security and safety,” said Cabus. “One thing Patti invested greatly in—and where I absolutely believe DSS is a valuable asset to the overall Foreign Service—is making sure that posts are ready for conflict.”
National Museum of American Diplomacy Associate Curator Kathryn Speckart (who presented a PowerPoint of Morton’s life), said that, while in Vietnam, Morton and her colleagues wrote and upgraded U.S. Embassy Saigon’s evacuation plan. Yet, a few weeks before the city was expected to fall to North Vietnam, her male supervisor ordered Morton to leave, stating it was no place for women. After Morton refused, her supervisor directed the medical officer to order her to leave. Morton pushed back, demanding a physical exam, and insisted that the exam results accompany her medical order to leave.
“I had the physical examination because I did not want women, forever after, to have to carry the burden of people saying, ‘See, women can’t stand up to an emergency crisis situation,’” said Morton in an oral history interview several decades later, adding, “I passed the physical with flying colors.”
Cabus noted, “For Patti, it’s regrettable that she couldn’t be in Vietnam when she felt she was needed the most, but the fact that her emergency plan stood the test of time even when she wasn’t there means she did her job, and she did it very well.”
Morton’s ability as an emergency planner and forward thinker was only one aspect of the respect she garnered in her posting as the first female RSO. Earlier in her career, Patti became an accomplished marksman, which paid off in the form of respect from the U.S. Embassy Saigon’s Marine Security Guards who coined Patti’s nickname, “Pistol Packin’ Patti.”
“I was able to hit things even with the bazookas and larger weapons that they had not been able to zero in on in the various times they had gone out to shoot,” said Morton during her oral history interview later in life. The Marines also gave her a camouflage uniform and headband so that she would fit in with them during their trips to the shooting range.
Cabus observed that Morton’s learning to shoot was not so much about bragging rights, it was more about ensuring that her colleagues would have confidence that she would be there in their time of need.
“That resonates with me today—having that relationship with our community is really important, and through that relationship we build community, said Cabus. “Long before the terms ‘emotional intelligence’ an’ ‘community building’ were thrown around, Patti was a master at both, building a lot of trust and confidence through her career with her colleagues—particularly as she paved the way for people like me and Wendy.”
As the virtual session drew to a close, Foreign Service Institute Director Ambassador Daniel B. Smith, who opened and closed the discussion, observed that 50 years ago, Morton demonstrated traits that are important for all U.S. diplomats to demonstrate today—resiliency, adaptability, and agility.
“What makes Patti stand out is the degree in which she was thinking ahead—thinking about training for others, resources for others, and helping others learn from her experiences, making the State Department a better place—both from the standpoint of our security preparedness but also our diversity and inclusion. She really was a pioneer,” said Ambassador Smith.
The full program is viewable on demand at: https://www.state.gov/videos-heroes-of-u-s-diplomacy#morton
To learn more about Patti Morton’s life and her contributions as a Hero of U.S. Diplomacy, please visit here. The Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy initiative highlights the stories of current Department of State professionals, alongside Heroes from the Department’s rich history who have elevated U.S. diplomacy by displaying policy, intellectual, physical, or moral courage.