Trekking Through Parts Unknown: Women Couriers & Their Predecessors -- Part I
By Barbara Gleason on March 16, 2018
In 1918, the Diplomatic Courier Service was established to support the work of U.S. diplomats by ensuring that classified messages and materials were delivered safely and securely to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.
In the 1950's, before the onset of the jet age, couriers -- all men -- traveled tens of thousands of miles per year, often spending months on the road, sometimes in unsafe, hazardous conditions. Yet in that male-dominated era there also were women assigned to the Diplomatic Courier Service as Foreign Service secretaries. They performed administrative duties, usually working in the courier hubs, but sometimes they traveled alongside the couriers under hazardous conditions. Other times, women stepped in and transported sensitive diplomatic pouches while on travel in other government or military roles.
It was not until November 01, 1972, more than half a century after the creation of the Diplomatic Courier Service, when the first woman courier, Susan Shirley Carter, reported for duty -- 10 years after she joined the Foreign Service. Carter was assigned to the Washington Regional Diplomatic Courier Division, which is primarily responsible for supplying classified material to the other courier offices around the globe for onward delivery. Two months later, a second woman, Lillian Godek, joined the Courier Service.
Following are the remembrances of four women who traveled with the Diplomatic Courier Service during the past six decades. Two served as secretaries before there were women couriers in the 1950's; another as one of the first women couriers in the 1970's; and a third who joined in the early 2000's and is still with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS).
Over the years, the modes of transportation have changed yet some of the challenges remain the same.
Traveling the Khyber Pass in the 1950's
In the 1950s, before there were female couriers, Rosemary “Rhody” Dunn and JoAnne Dieckman, Foreign Service secretaries, had the opportunity to travel from Pakistan to Afghanistan by car as part of a courier trip. Following are excerpts from interviews made for the Department of State documentary “U.S. Diplomatic Couriers—Through the Khyber Pass” (Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs), which highlights the recollections of three male couriers and the two secretaries.* Ms. Dunn and Ms. Dieckman offer a woman’s perspective of the excitement and the physical dangers of travel in remote locations during the early days of the Diplomatic Courier Service.*
Foreign Service Secretary Rosemary “Rhody” Dunn:
During my tour, there was always danger: flashfloods and bandits. My driver was Abdul, an Afghan. We started up, dirt sides of the roads, camels, and trucks coming down with [people] hanging on with their robes flapping in the wind. There’s not much greenery at all. If there was pavement, it was covered with dirt. And then it just goes over to the side. You could slide off. Of course, there are the Khyber Rifles up at the top. This was their armory or stronghold, and that is where they were stationed.
So we start up and we get to the border, and I can’t get in: “Your visa has expired.” So Abdul said, “All right, no problem. We’ll start back.” Well, he is careening down the Khyber back to the consulate in Peshawar, the Afghan consulate. We got there, they stamped my passport, and then I said, “Is there a ladies’ room here?” And he says, “What’s a ladies’ room?”
We were going to start up the gorge, and we started out, and up, up, up, up -- and the canyons -- just so deep. There was a truck coming around the corner with more flapping robes, and [the driver] wants to know do I want to take a picture. Oh, no, no. Oh, that was the scariest, scariest ride I ever had.
And even when I was there [later] in 1973, we stopped along the Khyber at a stronghold of some type, and the guy came out, and he had bandoliers across his chest and a big rifle. And I thought, “Well, then not much has changed.”
Foreign Service Secretary JoAnne Dieckman:
I was to meet a courier in Peshawar for the rest of the trip to Kabul. I was assured that it was very easy and very interesting, and I would love it. We had to wait until the driver, who was driving an open Jeep, came from the embassy in Kabul to pick us up. So we had tea sitting at a little table at the train station in Peshawar. He came, and we packed everything into the Jeep and off we went.
I was looking around for the road, and I didn’t see one, so I asked, “What road are we taking?” And he said, “Road?” And I looked and it was just a lot of tall grass. [Later,] there was a road of sorts. It was bumpy and dusty, but it was a road going into the mountains. And I looked to the right as we were driving along, and oh, my gosh, we were thousands of feet above any ground down there. I thought, there’s no barricade or fence or lines in the road or anything. We just had to count on the driver. Well, he did this for a living, so we hoped that he remembered how to do it all.
We came to a corner, and there were rocks going up so far, then there was no more road and we had to turn the corner. He did slow down then, because there could be a camel train or a bunch of sheep coming down the road. We tried not to look down to the right! The mountains were absolutely wonderful. They were so high and so beautiful, that you just tried to forget what you were doing. But the driver apparently knew his way because we did get to Kabul.
A Journey Across Africa—27 Days in the 1970's
Although men have been traveling across the African continent for decades as diplomatic couriers, the experience was relatively new to female couriers during the 1970s. In excerpts from an article in “The Roadbag,” the U.S. Diplomatic Courier Association newsletter, July, 1979, Diplomatic Courier Sharon Lipiec, recalls her 27-day courier journey through Africa.
Diplomatic Courier Sharon Lipiec:
On the first day, we cross the Atlantic on the Pan Am night flight through Dakar to Roberts Field.
We spend one-week jumping off from Abidjan to circle Central Africa. One night, and it is Air Afrique through Lome/Cotonou/Douala to Brazzaville. We cannot obtain multiple visas for Kinshasa, so they brought the bags across the river to us. Pan Am quit stopping in Kinshasa. There is the same problem with early planes as they presently overfly Chad, countless schedule changes, missing drivers, and Ghana closing the airport and borders for two weeks to change over their currency. On the 10th day, Pan Am wings its way to Nairobi. On the 12th, it is on to South Africa to revel in a clean, bright, spacious hotel -- a chance to relax, get our laundry done. Who can fault the South African climate as you perform easy shuttles to Mbabane, Gaborone, Maseru, and Maputo for a week?
Back to West Africa after the weekend in Nairobi -- and a third week shuttling around Bamako, Ouagadougou, Niamey, Nouakchott, Banjul, Freetown and Conakry from Dakar. After reconfirming twice with Air Senegal, I get to the airport to find my roundtrip flight to Nouakchott has been cancelled. Yes, Nigerian Airways is still going at 0900 Saturday morning. At 1700 Friday, Banjul radios to say they heard Nigerian cancelled. A call to the Airways in Dakar proves the rumor correct.
We stay at the Hotel Du Plateau, a tiny little place near the embassy. They treat us well though some complain they steal the soap. They never gave us any soap in the first place. On the 26th day we face the Dakar-Conakry-Dakar shuttle only hours before we are scheduled to catch Pan Am to New York and home. It’s a nerve-wracking day as Air Maroc delays getting to Dakar. In the back of my mind I know if I miss the connection, the same plane keeps on going, and I face another week there. Made it and got off National Airlines in D.C. at 0900 on the 27th day.
Has anything changed so much over the years?
A Modern Day Pony Express…but with Robes and Camels -2010's
“It’s a modern day Pony Express with an air of adventurous intrigue and a noble goal: To advance and protect American interests and foreign policy,” recalls Diplomatic Courier Bernadette Wolfe who received a superior honor award for her tarmac access negotiations during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Wolfe originally joined the Diplomatic Courier Service in 2005 and began a high stress, high-excitement career that took her across the world by all modes of transportation -- plane, train, truck, and even camel. She is now settled back in the Washington, D.C., area on assignment in the Diplomatic Security Command Center. Following are her recollections of the years and challenges of life as a courier -- both professionally and as a woman and single parent.
Diplomatic Courier Bernadette Wolfe, Unofficial Courier Historian and Alumni Website Coordinator:
In 2009, I requested and was granted transfer to the Middle East, which was on the cusp of the historic Arab Spring. I welcomed the opportunity to serve as temporary Manama hub chief during Bahrain’s state of emergency. After the authorized departure, I had the honor to move the courier operations to Frankfurt, Germany, then restore the Bahrain courier routes.
During that turbulent period, I was in Bahrain, trying to get the material out of the country as fast as we could. We were trucking to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when the situation on the ground escalated and they closed the border behind me. Complicating the matter was the fact that my teenage son was in a Bahrain school at the time of the border closure. That was terrible, not being sure when I could return to see my son. I knew he was safe, and I knew as a courier, my mission was to protect the materials. Fortunately, I was able to return to my son three days later.
It was in the Middle East where I experienced two of my more memorable deliveries. After my flight was diverted to an airport in Aden, Yemen -- a city with no U.S. Embassy or consulate -- I found myself without any U.S. Department of State personnel to help secure the material.With assistance of an English-speaking security man, I was able to negotiate with airport officials to bring the 12 pouches into the terminal. There, I remained with the pouches overnight until the situation could be sorted out. It took more than an hour for them to realize I wasn’t some kind of drug smuggler or gun runner. My lodging for the evening?A couch in the VIP terminal with a tablecloth and a curtain for warmth.
Although under challenging conditions, I was surprised how friendly the people were to women. As a Western working woman, I was very successful there. I didn’t have the problems that people believe women have. In fact, I was sad when I had to leave. I was able to dress normally, but conservatively in the Middle East. However, Saudi Arabia was the exception. As a representative of the U.S. government, I followed local law and custom to wear the long black robe known as the abaya in public.
In my travels, I’ve slept on tarmacs, under planes, in trucks -- all the time just watching the cargo.
The memories I collected as a courier are enough to last a lifetime -- and I never lost a pouch. I visited 100-plus countries, and in the end, I know I made a difference for my country. Every day, I was able to do the most amazing job in the world.
Throughout 2018, the Diplomatic Courier Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Read more about the Diplomatic Courier Service and its proud history here, and follow DSS on Facebook and Twitter -- #CouriersAt100.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com and on the U.S. Department of State's Official Blog -- DipNote