Mark’s Special Mission at Arlington National Cemetery by Gregory Keeney
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The last two weeks have been interesting, to say the least. (That sentence is a strong competitor for “understatement of the year 2019.”) I almost typed that I’ve started this post multiple times in the last fourteen days, but that isn’t actually true. I’ve thought about starting this post, but have never gotten beyond pondering it in the shower that has endless hot water, or on my newly re-instituted walks past the White House on my way to work, or as I wander the aisles of CVS, fully aware that they are more groceries available in a single corner drug store in downtown Washington D.C. than there were in the supermarkets I frequented in Caracas.
So yes, the last two weeks have been full of changes- normally something that gets top billing at In Search of the End of the Sidewalk. And yet, my faithful readers (all 7.5 of you!) have heard nary a peep out of me- even the book reviews have been sporadic and off-schedule. Why? Because processing takes time. Because heartache is hard to put onto paper (or a screen). And because there is no way to explain what it feels like to be given 72 hours to pack up your life and to say goodbye to friends and colleagues and not be sure if you will ever see them again.
For me, that meant working a really long day, being so busy I didn’t even realize I hadn’t taken a trip to the little diplomats’ room in over ten hours- thank you middle school teacher bladder! I was holding it together well as long as I was fielding questions, sorting plans, and thinking about what needed to be done to get everyone on those planes. That all fell apart for me at about 4:50PM. I looked down at the clock on my computer and realized that the goodbye was coming soon- very soon. Updating spreadsheets made blurry by watering eyes, I staved off the inevitable for as long as possible. But denial can only last so long. Five o’clock is usually a great time of day, but not that Thursday afternoon. When Gerard, my CLO administrative assistant got up to go, I fell apart. I’m not sure we even actually said goodbye. A long and tight hug, followed by a second hug said it all for us. Tears flowed. He hid his behind sunglasses and I did the awkward hand-flap thing, neither of us able to pretend this was anything less than goodbye.
All of these things take a toll and while writing is therapeutic, blank space is as well. (I was going to make a clever Taylor Swift reference here, as I do enjoy some terrible pop music in my life, but then I realized that the chorus lyrics of “So it’s gonna be forever/Or it’s gonna go down in flames/You can tell me when it’s over/If the high was worth the pain” are really more fitting with the political side of Venezuela, a topic I’m going to steer away from as much as possible in this forum. I’m not going to talk about what may or may not be forever in Venezuela, what may or may not go down in flames in Caracas and whether or not it is worth the pain. I’ll have that conversation all day long in person, but not here. Not now. So, Taylor, my dear, no cheeky 1989 album references for me tonight.)
With a fortnight plus-plus behind me and most of the craziness starting to get under control, it seems like now is a good time to talk about our ordered departure. But how do I do that without getting into the politics? That’s a tough line to walk, but the best answer is to do it through an equally powerful “p” word- people.
People are what made it hard to leave Caracas and people are what made leaving possible.
The folks on the ground in Venezuela were amazing. Our GSO team (these are the officers and local staff who deal with our housing, our cars, our travel, etc.) was more prepared that I could have imagined with seats booked on American Airlines for the entire crew of departing personnel and families in a matter of hours. At the same time, they negotiated with American Airlines to allow us all extra bags (AA said three per person, but when we got to the airport, there was no counting or weighing- if you brought it to the counter, it got tagged and put on the plane- amazing customer service!) and to make sure the airline was prepared for the large number of pets that would be evacuating with the community. The actual arrangements to get everyone out of Venezuela in a safe and secure and expeditious manner was a massive amount of work and the GSO team at post was professional, but also deeply caring as they helped sort a variety of individual arrangements.
While GSO was on the phone with the airlines, the HR shop was cutting orders, not just to DC, but a variety of safe-haven locations both inside and outside the United States. This is a daunting task, one that requires hours of manpower and yet I never saw the team waiver- staying as late as necessary to make sure that people were ready to fly in a matter of hours.
And I can’t say enough fantastic things about our security team either. Quiet leadership and professionalism were the names of the game for the office on that Thursday of controlled chaos. While some of them had their own families to help prepare for the evacuation, they continued to make arrangements for our secure departure from the country we collectively called home. As they were in and out of my office that last morning and afternoon, it was a constant discussion about how to lessen the trauma of the next few days. One of the most amazing things that came out of the departure from Caracas was the help that our team in Caracas was able to secure with their colleagues in Miami. When we reached Miami with the first set of evacuees ( ½ came out on Friday and the other ½ on Saturday) we were met at the doors of the plane by a couple of field agents who told us to gather at the top of the ramp with the other agents. When we had the entire embassy crew together, these men carried babies, pushed strollers, opened passport control lines for our officers and diplomatic families, pushed us through security screening, and provided escorts to our onward gates. Amazing isn’t strong enough of a word for this group of agents. Astonishing. Astounding. Remarkable. All of these are fair adjectives. It wasn’t that we couldn’t have gone through passport control like we normally do. We definitely could have helped one another with babies and strollers and luggage. We could have stood in line to redo security checks and we definitely could have wandered the airport to find our gates. We had time. But, to have someone standing there, welcoming us home with smiles was special. We were emotionally spent. The goodbyes that morning in Caracas were tough- they were heartbreaking and many of us felt as if we were abandoning our coworkers and employees in a time of crisis. To have someone, just for a few minutes, take over and say “we’ve got you” meant the world. They were strangers to us, but we are all part of a bigger USG team looking out for the best interests of this nation. We didn’t need to know them beyond that for them to take us under their wings and provide much needed support. We are one team. And they had our backs in a really special way.
To top it off, when we arrived in Washington DC at the end of a day that felt endless, we were greeted once again by smiling faces. The previous CLO and a few former-Caracas State Department workers were in the terminal with signs and smiles and cheers and hugs and a few tears as well. (Also, not to be discounted, they had water and homemade cookies!) The people who were there were part of the crew that went on ordered departure back in 2017, so they got it in a way no one else could. They knew what our last 48 hours had been like- no need to rehash it or explain why tears and smiles went hand in hand.
This whole thing started with politics- politics that I feel deeply connected to and have strong personal opinions about. But in my two weeks of processing, I realize it is the people who have stepped up to make a difficult situation a bit easier, a bit smoother, a bit more humane. I can’t begin to compare my hardships with those of the average Venezuelan, but difficult times aren’t about comparing one set of pain with another- they are about being resilient in your own place at your own time and it has been the people around me who have helped to create a soft landing after what felt a bit like jumping without a parachute. It is those people who made me feel like I am ready to hop back on that plane and jump again. And again. And again, if necessary.
Living in Caracas was not always easy and at times it was frustrating beyond belief, but these people (and many others) make me want to be on the next flight back there. They make me want to be back at work alongside strong and compassionate colleagues and friends. And they make me believe that the political fight for democracy is worth all of this and more.
U.S. Embassy Caracas (photo credit: P. Branco)
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For the longest time, all through high school and college, I shied away from non-fiction books that weren’t on my required reading lists. My image of non-fiction was one of drily written tales that read like epic encyclopedia entries; just the facts, ma’am. But, about seven years ago I stumbled upon Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, turning my notion of non-fiction writing on its head. (Stumbled upon isn’t entirely accurate. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in western China, starving from a lack of reading material and was handed this book. Whereas a year before I would have turned my nose up at it, literary deprivation had taken hold and I devoured the paperback, cover to cover, in just two days.) Since my introduction into the new world of non-fiction, I’ve read everything from real-life accounts of floods in Pennsylvania (The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough) to adventures in the far reaches of the Amazon (The Unconquered by Scott Wallace), not to mention a bevy of memoirs.
My most recent foray into the world of non-fiction was The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, a tale of the birth of our national park system and the fire that nearly destroyed it. As a frequenter of the American national parks, the book drew me in with the history of how these lands were set aside and preserved for future generations, which was no easy task as industry leaders would rather turn a profit off the wood and minerals available, building a dynasty for their family, rather than create a lasting legacy for the entire nation. Egan does a great job giving the background of this fight, leaving the reader feeling like they “knew” Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.
With a strong back story set, Egan then pushes the reader through the harrowing forty-eight hours that were “the big burn.” Connections between the reader and the characters, as well as the reader and the land, create a sense of panic and fear as the fire ravages the mountain ridges of the northwestern forests. I could feel the flames licking my hands as I turned the pages; I could feel the heat of the fire as it rushed over fireman huddled in creeks under wet blankets and hunkered down in ravines and caves; I could feel the air rush out of the room as the fire stole away the oxygen, leaving noxious poison in its stead; and I could feel the fear of men who were moments away from their painful deaths.
In the last decade, non-fiction has become highly readable. No longer does one feel like they need to be a subject matter in the topic at hand before picking up a history-based book. Egan continues to add to this recreated genre- writing a book about the birth of our nation’s beloved parks that is ideal for anyone who has ever set foot in the wilderness of the northwest. While the disastrous mixture of the greed of the eastern seaboard barons and the big burn nearly destroyed the burgeoning forest service and all Pinchot and Roosevelt worked for, the author is able to spin the tale in such a way to create hope on the part of the reader, ending with a sense of better days, rather than the one of despair that could so easily take its place. Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn earns: