In April 1990 I was serving my first tour as a foreign service officer in Matamoros, Mexico as a vice consul. We got a call that an American couple had given birth to a premature baby in desperate need of medical care. The Shriners agreed to send a helicopter to take this baby to a hospital to save its life, but the Mexican authorities did not grant the helicopter permission to land in Matamoros. So I did what any of my other colleagues would do in a heartbeat: I piled baby, parents, and incubator into one of the Consulate’s Suburbans and sped through the streets of Matamoros to the waiting helicopter at the U.S. border.
This baby is old enough now to have a career and a family of its own, and as I look back on my 32 years of service to my country, it’s stories like these that stick out. Not promotions, not titles, not the square footage of my office, but the real people, with real families and lives and heartaches and joys of their own, whom I wake up to serve every day. And I know my colleagues share that same motivation of public service.
This spirit was on overwhelming display during the biggest challenge of my career: the repatriation of over 100,000 overseas Americans during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these Americans weren’t simply sitting in airport lounges, waiting for the next plane. They were on mountainsides, in jungles, in the middle of the ocean and the desert when the pandemic closed borders, air routes, and roads. I watched with awe from my position as the head of the repatriation task force as my colleagues at embassies and consulates around the world and my colleagues across the government here in Washington worked day and night to bring back Americans who wanted to come home. I was once again struck by the creativity, by the resourcefulness, by the gumption they displayed. My colleagues put their day-to-day work and lives aside to come together to help others, even as their own lives were changing and their own health was at risk. The fear and uncertainty that gripped the rest of the world as a terrifying new disease emerged also affected our team. Yet they chose to come to work every day, working long hours, throughout the night, to bring our Americans home.
This inspiring commitment to serving the American public is nothing new. I’ve seen it in my colleagues throughout my career, from the local staff with whom I worked in my tours overseas, to the heroic but too-often unsung civil servants in Washington and around the country who work every day to help their fellow Americans get passports, register their newborns for U.S. citizenship, and much more.
One of the only constants in consular work is crisis, both on a personal and on a global scale. There will always be another baby in need of urgent medical care; there will always, unfortunately, be another disaster. But as long as there are crises, there will be selfless, hardworking consular professionals eager, no matter the cost, to lend a hand.
Everyone who has worked for the State Department has a story about why they joined. When I think back about the times I have been able to help my fellow Americans, that’s when I know I picked the right job.
Read more on Acting Assistant Secretary Brownlee’s naming as one of the finalists for the 2021 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals here.
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About the Author: Ian Brownlee is the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. In 2020 he led an interagency team that repatriated over 100,000 U.S. citizens from nearly 150 countries around the world. He and his team are finalists for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, the “Oscars” of government service. To learn more about the “Sammies,” and to vote for A/AS Brownlee, visit the Sammies website.