On the few occasions that I have visited the State Department, either for interviews, to get help from the Family Liaison Office, or to visit my husband for lunch, I have felt the need to linger just inside the security gates, in the imposing, marble lobby of the Harry S. Truman building, to view the American Foreign Service Association’s Memorial Plaque.
Located on the west end of the building, the plaque lists the names of State Department personnel who have died while serving in U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. The plaque lists the officer’s name, where and when he/she died, and the nature of the diplomats’ deaths.
“Lost at Sea” reads the listing for William Palfrey, the earliest member of the Foreign Service to die while abroad in 1780. Other causes of death include all sorts of ailments, such as malaria and yellow fever; murder; earthquakes; hurricanes; burned or drowned while trying to save a life; landmines; plane crashes; and even exhaustion. There are also the political deaths: “Assassinated by Uruguayan Rebels;” “Murdered by Palestinian Terrorists;” “Killed in Bombing of Embassy.”
The AFSA Memorial Plaque has always held a morbid fascination for me, mostly because I could read the names and these two- or three-word obituaries and construct in my head entire Graham Greene novels from them. But, today I am waking up to realize these lives lost are not part of fiction. They are very real. And the AFSA Plaque exists to underline the very real dangers of Foreign Service life.
Today’s news that Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American diplomats died in a raid on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, really hits home for me. News outlets are giving this horrible incident attention because Ambassador Stevens is the first U.S. ambassador since 1976 to die “while serving the U.S. Government and the American people abroad in foreign affairs.” In fact, prior to yesterday’s attack in Libya, the most recent Foreign Service Officer to die while serving her country was Sharon S. Clark, who died in Nigeria in 2010 of Cerebral Malaria.
In total, 236 names have been inscribed on the AFSA Memorial Plaques: 108 names on the west plaque and 128 names on a second plaque located on the east end of the State Department’s diplomatic lobby. Ms. Clark’s name was the last FSO to be memorialized on the AFSA Plaque. On May 3, 2013 – Foreign Affairs Day – surely Ambassador Stevens’ name and the names of those others who have died while serving abroad will be forever etched on that wall, too.
Please note that the photos above are screenshots of the names on the AFSA Memorial Plaque. You can see a list of all the names here.